Fabulous Fiction Firsts #509 - “You can't fly if your wings are holding the baggage of yesterday...” ~ Steve Maraboli

The weather outside is frightful. All the more reason to curl up with Dictatorship of the Dress * * by ex-librarian Jessica Topper.

It looks like everyone loves a bride-to-be. Former Marvel Comics illustrator Laney Hudson, recipient of unexpected kindness and first-class upgrade is not about to tell anyone that the 10-lb. pearl & lace confection inside the blue-and-silver-satin garment bag does not belong to her. She has been asked to deliver it to Hawaii for her mother's fairytale nuptial and to prove, once and for all that she is capable of doing something right.

At a Chicago layover, a massive snowstorm cancels all flights out, stranding Laney and her first class seatmate "tech-boy" (on account of his endless parade of gadgets) whom, the airline crew has mistaken to be her groom. This is when Laney's little white lie turns into a hot mess.

En route to his Vegas bachelor party, the last thing software designer Noah Ridgewood needs is some dress-obsessed, shoeless (due to a little mishap at LaGuardia) bridezilla landing in his first-class row. But being stuck in the honeymoon suite of a Chicago hotel with Laney overnight turns out to be more than either one of them bargains and could hope for.

In this riveting and pitch-perfect contemporary, first in the Much "I Do" About Nothing series, "Topper develops Laney and Noah as individuals through their recollections of significant events in their lives; Laney's struggles with the baggage of her past and Noah's battles to make the right decisions in his are chronicled with an honesty and charm that is heartwarming and spellbinding. Topper's tale of loss and love is a winner."

Readalikes:
The Man You'll Marry by Debbie Macomber, and The Dream Dress by Janice Thompson, in her Wedding by Design series. Readers might also want to check out in our collection, her Wedding by Bella series.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #508

January brings a number of terrific debut novels. The one I am most excited to share is Unbecoming by Rebecca Scherm (MFA, Helen Zell Writers Program at the University of Michigan). Follow her on Facebook, and plan to attend her signing @ Literati, 7pm on January 27.

She calls herself Julie now, from California. For the past 2 years, Grace restores bric-a-brac, repairs antiques and jewelry in a Paris chop shop, and lives alone in a shabby room. Regularly, she checks the Garland (TN) newspaper online for news of a case involving robbery of The Wynne House, a local heritage estate and museum, and the two young men caught for the crime, a heist that Grace meticulously engineered. Now, Grace's past and carefully constructed lies are about to catch up with her half way around the world, as the two men are being paroled.

In a series of flashbacks, from small-town USA to the Manhattan art scene, and the backstreets of Europe, we follow the "unbecoming-of-age" of a young woman with a special gift for restoration and for reinventing herself with equal deftness.

"Mesmerizing, nail-biting, atmospheric, and sensual... Unbecoming is an intricately plotted and psychologically nuanced heist novel that turns on suspense and slippery identity."

"Scherm mixes a character study with a caper novel full of double-crosses, lies, and betrayals... She is at her best when describing precious objects: a Dutch master's still life, a James Mont cigar box with hidden compartment, an ornate centerpiece with fanciful fruit and figurines, and silver spoons ignored by their owners but appreciated by the professional hired to evaluate them."

Readers looking for an elegantly well-played cat-and-mouse game should delight in Alfred Hitchcock's To Catch a Thief (1954); The Thomas Crown Affair (1968, and the 1999 remake); and White Collar, the just concluded (sadly) tv series.

Fans of Gillian Flynn who appreciate "(a) bleak tone, deeply flawed protagonist, and dysfunctional relationships" wouldn't want to miss this one. And let's not forget Patricia Highsmith's Ripley novels as read-alikes.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #507 -“In the end these things matter most: How well did you love? How fully did you live? How deeply did you let go?” ~ Gautama Buddha

Before I Go * by Colleen Oakley, given the premise, could have been a sentimental tearjerker but instead, yes, it is heart-wrenching of course, but surprisingly upbeat and life-affirming.

27 year old grad. student Daisy Richmond beat cancer once but on her third "Cancerversary", the cancer is back - Stage IV, aggressive and inoperable. She knows she won't be around for husband Jack's graduation from vet school - something they have worked, sacrificed and delayed their life-plans (kids and vacations) for. What terrifies Daisy most is not dying, but leaving brilliant, domestically-challenged, absent-minded Jack on his own. So instead of planning some "make-a-wish" grown-up getaway for her last days, she is going to find Jack a wife with the time she has left.

With the help of her best friend Kayleigh, Daisy systematically scouts out dog parks (must love dogs) coffee shops and online dating sites looking for the perfect match for Jack. But when it looks like she is way too successful in her quest, Daisy has a change of heart.

Debut novelist Oakley "expertly tugs at the heartstrings with well-rounded characters and a liberal dose of gallows humor."

For readers who enjoyed Hello Goodbye by Emily Chenoweth (a FFF); P.S. I love you by Cecelia Ahern that has been adapted into film; Hannah's List by Debbie Macomber; and Promises to Keep by Jane Green - novels that deal with difficult issues of illnesses and grief, holding on and letting go of the ones we love.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #506

Wildalone * by Krassi Zourkova opens with an enchanting tale of a monk's erotic encounter with samodivias (or wildalones), and thus sets the scene for this "darkly imaginative debut novel full of myth, magic, romance, and mystery. "

Thea(dora) Slavin, a Bulgarian piano prodigy arrives on the Princeton campus and is immediately thrown into the maelstrom of freshman activities. Beyond the requisite college-life adjustments, she is juggling a demanding schedule of classes, practice and performance, as well as struggling to adapt to unfamiliar American ways.

Privately, Thea is harboring a secret ambition - to find out what happened to her sister Elza who died violently 15 years ago as a Princeton freshman and her body went missing mysterious before the family had a chance to claim it. Thea grew up in the family's oppressive silence concerning Elza's death and is determined to find out what happened.

Her first clue comes from an unlikely source - her Art History professor who leads and baits her to a Greek vase in the Museum, depicting the Dionysian Mysteries. Then there is her shadowy "stalker", a devilishly handsome and exceedingly enigmatic young man who fades in and out of her consciousness. Before long, she finds herself romantically entangled with not only Jake Estlin, but also with his older brother Rhys, gradually being drawn into a sensual mythic underworld as irresistible as it is dangerous - one that might yield the answers to Elza's fate, as well as the terrifying truth about her own family.

(Bulgarian native) "Zourkova (Princeton, Art History and Harvard Law) pulls off a balancing act that few debut authors manage: a clever, dark (paranormal) romance steeped in mystery, with a bittersweet thread of melancholy and keen sense of place."

"Mesmerizing and addictive,... a bewitching blend of Twilight, The Secret History, Jane Eyre, and A Discovery of Witches." The ending strongly hints at a sequel. Let's hope we won't have to wait long.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #505 - "It's a lot easier to be lost than found. It's the reason we're always searching and rarely discovered--so many locks not enough keys.” ~ Sarah Dessen

Lost & Found * by Brooke Davis, a Penguin First Flight author, is "an irresistible debut novel about the wisdom of the very young, the mischief of the very old, and the magic that happens when no one else is looking."

7 yr. old Millie Bird was left at the Ginormous Women's Undies Department of the local store by her distraught mother shortly after her father's death. 87 yr. old Karl, the touch-typist made a daring escape from a care facility and has been secretly camping out in the Men's dressing rooms at night. They bonded over their Lists of Dead Things, muffins, and creative use of the store merchandise until they were caught. It was the police station for Karl but he managed to free Millie who made her way home, only to find the house empty.

Across the street, 82 yr. old Agatha Pantha has not left her house in 7 years, since the day she buried her husband, nor had she spoken to a live person if you don't count shouting at passersby. But when she saw the curly-haired little girl roaming alone in that house, she marched right over to take matters in hand.

Brought together by determination, luck, and a kindly bus driver, the three embarked on a road trip across Western Australia to find Millie's mother. Along the way, they discovered that being "old" could be a state of mind; that the young could be wise; and happiness could catch you unawares, if you gave it a chance.

Already a runaway bestseller at home, Lost & Found was originally written as the author's PhD thesis on grief at Curtin University in Western Australia. It was inspired by her mother's sudden death while Brooke was traveling abroad.

If you've enjoyed meeting our Millie here, then you would be charmed by the young protagonists in Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman and 2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas by Marie-Helene Bertino, and their stories.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #504 - "This being human is a guest house... Be grateful for whatever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond." ~ Rumi

Award-winning filmmaker/artist Miranda July brings "(her) characteristic humor, frankness and emotional ruthlessness" to her debut novel The First Bad Man * * *. (Check out her short stories in No One Belongs Here More Than You that reviewers called "simultaneously bizarre and achingly familiar.")

Fortysomething Cheryl Glickman, managing director of Open Palm, a women's non-profit works from home at her bosses' suggestion. Tightly-wound and incredibly regimented, she lives alone and suffers from debilitating globus hystericus. Cheryl has been secretly in love with Phillip, one of her board members and fantasizes a sexual relationship. At times, she has reasons to hold out hope, until Phillip's tearful confessions.

When Cheryl's bosses ask if their 21 year-old daughter, Clee, can move into her house for a little while, Cheryl's eccentrically ordered world explodes. Gradually, Cheryl and Clee work out a bizarre arrangement in that they act out the staged scenarios in a series of women's self-defense videos, with Clee playing the part of the "bad man". Ultimately, it is the selfish and cruel Clee who bullies Cheryl into reality and, unexpectedly, provides her the love of a lifetime.

"Told in Cheryl's own confiding, unfiltered voice, the novel slides easily between plot and imagination, luring the reader so deeply into Cheryl's interior reality that the ridiculous inventions of her life become progressively more and more convincing."

Called "dazzling, disorienting, and unforgettable", The First Bad Man is a "spectacular debut novel that is so heartbreaking, so dirty, so tender, so funny...that readers will be blown away."

For open-minded readers ready for something new and unusual.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #503 - “Letter writing is the only device combining solitude with good company.” ~ George Gordon Byron

For many of us who travel over the break, it is crucial to have the company of a good audio book. Here are some tried-and-true winners that take the form of epistolary novels and will keep you engaged and entertained.

I just returned That Part Was True (2014) by Deborah McKinlay. Charming and delightful, with mouth-watering recipes. Highly recommended.

"Spinsterly" (self-described) 46 year-old Brit. Eve Petworth is long-divorced, privileged and painfully shy. Then uncharacteristically she strikes up a pen pal friendship with successful American novelist Jackson Cooper (think Robert Parker) through their mutual love of food and fine cooking. Over time, they support each other through challenges (hers, a bridezilla daughter and his, writer's block) and personal relationship dramas before Jackson suggests they meet for a culinary rendezvous in Paris.

Attachments (2011) by Rainbow Rowell
Gossiping and sharing their personal secrets on e-mail in spite of their company's online monitoring practices, Beth and Jennifer unwittingly amuse Internet security officer Lincoln, who unexpectedly falls for Beth while reading their correspondence.

Frances and Bernard (2013) by Carlene Bauer (FFF, a Fabulous Fiction Firsts)
It is not love at first sight for Frances and Bernard. She finds him faintly ridiculous while he sees her as aloof. But after that first meeting, Bernard writes Frances a letter which changes everything and soon they are immersed in the kind of fast, deep friendship that can alter the course of lives.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society (2008) by Mary Ann Shaffer (a FFF)
In 1946, writer Juliet Ashton finds inspiration for her next book in her correspondence with a native of Guernsey, who tells her about the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, a book club born as an alibi during German occupation.

Letters from Skye (2013) by Jessica Brockmole (a FFF)
A love story told in letters spans two world wars and follows the correspondence between a poet on the Scottish Isle of Skye and an American volunteer ambulance driver for the French Army, an affair that is discovered years later when the poet disappears.

Safe travels.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #502 - "Faith is about doing. You are how you act, not just how you believe.” ~ Mitch Albom

In A Song for Issy Bradley * debut novelist Carys Bray, "(w)ith courage, warmth, and intelligence...sweetly and subtly breaks your heart", as the Bradleys come to terms with grief, each in his or her own way.

A man of strong faith and even stronger sense of duty, Ian Bradley, math teacher and Mormon bishop in a secular British neighborhood, embraces his calling often at the expense of his family's needs. His wife Claire (a convert upon marriage to Ian) feels overwhelmed and lonely in caring for their large family - Zippy and Al, teenagers who endure and rebel in equal measures; 7 year-old Jacob, sensitive and wise-beyond-his years, is the one who tries to hold the family together when 4-year-old Issy dies of meningitis.

"In this wry, original, generous-spirited debut novel, members of a family come to terms with grief...They wrestle with belief and disillusionment, desire and hopelessness, pervasive sorrow and moments of transcendent joy. The result is riveting, powerful, and quietly devastating." It will appeal to fans of Me Before You; Little Bee; and Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

A much anticipated debut this December is The Bishop's Wife * * * by Teen author Mette Ivie Harrison, her first try at adult fiction, inspired by an actual crime.

Unlike Claire Bradley, Linda, the mother of five grown boys and the wife to Mormon bishop Kurt Wallheim of Draper (UT), embraces the duties and challenges of being the bishop's wife, having been raised a Mormon herself. But Linda is increasingly troubled by the church's patriarchal structure and secrecy, especially when a neighbor, Jared Helm, appears on the Wallheims' doorstep with his 5-year-old daughter, claiming that his wife, Carrie, disappeared in the middle of the night. Carrie's worried parents present quite a different image of the Helm household. The more Linda learns about the curious circumstances at the Helms' residence, the more she suspects Jared is responsible for his wife's disappearance.

When Tobias Torstensen, another member of the church becomes gravely ill, Linda tries to provide support for his wife Anna, who helped raise Tobais' sons after the death of his first wife, a mystery that begins to unfold as Linda finds an unlikely item hidden in their barn. Despite Kurt's entreaties to leave these problems alone, Linda is driven to investigate. The discovery of two bodies produces devastating revelations for the close-knit community, but Linda never thinks of giving up her search for the painful truth. For those who enjoyed Cage of Stars by Jacquelyn Mitchard.

Both Bray and Harrison were raised in strict Mormon households. Their unique perspectives and candor lend authenticity to these debuts.

* = starred review
* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #501 - “Happiness is the consequence of personal effort. You fight for it, strive for it, insist upon it, and sometimes even travel around the world looking for it." ~ Elizabeth Gilbert, Eat, Pray, Love.

2 UK debuts. 2 young women rising out of bleak adolescence to realize the individuals they are meant to be.

British cultural critic Caitlin Moran follows up her 2012 New York Times bestselling memoir How To Be a Woman with a debut novel - How to Build a Girl * * that draws from her own experience, having joined the music weekly Melody Maker at an very young age before becoming a prize-winning columnist at the London Times.

14-year-old Johanna Morrigan, the product of a large dysfunctional council-flat welfare family in the West Midlands, decides to remake herself after an embarrassing appearance on national TV. Almost overnight, the freaky fat girl who is at once "endearing, ­hilarious, pathetic, and wise" becomes the feared music reviewer Dolly Wilde (named after Oscar's niece - "this amazing alcoholic lesbian who was dead scandalous"), drinking regularly, having lots of sex, and writing acidulous reviews of rock bands. But is that enough?

"Moran's coming-of-age debut novel is both poignant and laugh-out-loud funny, a treat for young adults as well as those who remember the era (1990s) and its music."

In Making Marion : where's Robin Hood when you need him? * * by Beth Moran, Marion Miller leaves behind her job as a library assistant, a doctor-fiance and a childhood of neglect and abuse in Ballydown, a hamlet in Northern Ireland for Nottinghamshire, to uncover her father's secret past.

Searching for Sherwood Forest Visitor Center lands her at the Peace and Pigs campsite, an impromptu job offer, and a place to call home. Though hard work and the determination to overcoming her shyness earn her friendship and acceptance, the locals refuse to talk when shown the photograph of her father as a young man, dressed as Robin Hood. Only Reuben, heir to Hatherstone Hall is willing to come to her aid, motivated by a connection to his family history.

"Roaming pigs, food fights, and conspiring chickens add flavor to this delightful debut, which also touches on mother-daughter relationships, family secrets, and finding love, and yourself."

"One of the best inspirational novels of the season", it will appeal to fans of Jane Green, Marian Keyes, and Jill Mansell.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Small Gems (and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #500)

It's that time again. As we approach winter solstice, the days are getting shorter and we are getting into high gear for the holidays, don't despair. Here are some suggestions for SHORT titles that you could curl up with.

46 Brilliant Short Novels You Can Read In A Day, great reads under 200 pages. Mostly.

From GoodRead: Popular Under 200 Pages Books - wonderful time to catch up on some classics and new award winners. The Huffington Post also jumps on the bandwagon with their thoughtful and inspired reading list. Here is a list for nonfiction readers.

My personal find this year?

Our Lady of the Nile (in French) by Scholastique Mukasonga, winner of the 2012 Renaudot Prize and the Ahamadou Kourouma Prize - a moving and nuanced portrait of violence and survival; a debut novel of "rugged beauty and unbearable suspense".

The conflict between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority is expressed through the microcosm of Our Lady of the Nile, a Catholic boarding school for wealthy and influential young ladies in Rwanda. Virginia and Veronica are two Tutsi girls in the lycee because of quotas, and they are keenly aware of the dangers they face as ethnic minority. When Gloriosa, the daughter of a Hutu politician, starts telling lies about being attacked by Tutsis, the retaliatory violence costs Veronica her life and Virginia her education.

Born in Rwanda in 1956, the author experienced from childhood the violence and humiliation of ethnic conflicts. In 1973, she was forced to flee to Burundi and settled in France in 1992. Two year later, she lost 27 members of her family to the genocide of the Tutsi.

Slightly longer but spectacular in every way is Lily King's Euphoria * * *, a thinly-veiled account of the love affair between Margaret Mead and Gregory Bateson, her third husband while she was married to Reo Fortune as they were conducting anthropological research in the remote territories of New Guinea. (Readers curious as to the accuracy of the storyline might want to check out this article called "Mead's Folly").

"A taut, witty, fiercely intelligent tale of competing egos and desires in a landscape of exotic menace—a love triangle in extremis… The steam the book emits is as much intellectual as erotic…King is brilliant.”

Little wonder that it has been named winner of this year's Kirkus Prize for Fiction and the New England Book Award. New York Times, as well as Time Magazine, and NPR named it one of the 10 Best Fiction of 2014. I promise you that it is well worth the wait.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

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