Fabulous Fiction Firsts #527 - Spotlight on Canadian Debuts

These 3 noteoworthy debuts share more than geography. Two are mysteries/police procedurals; two have strong historical significance; and all are inspired by real persons and/or events.

Asylum by Jeannette De Beauvoir is set in Montreal where Martine LeDuc is the director of PR for the mayor's office. Four women are found brutally murdered and shockingly posed on park benches throughout the city. Fearing a threat to tourism, the Mayor tasked Martine to act as liaison with the police department. She is paired with a young detective, Julian Fletcher. Together they dig deep into the city's and the country's past, only to uncover a link between the four women: all were involved with the decades-old Duplessis orphanage scandal. "A complex and heartbreaking mystery."

"Meticulously researched and resounding with the force of myth" The Thunder of Giants by Toronto playwright Joel Fishbane, "blends fact and fiction in a sweeping narrative that spans nearly a hundred years. Against the backdrop of epic events, two extraordinary women become reluctant celebrities in the hopes of surviving a world too small to contain them."

In 1937, at nearly eight feet tall, Andorra Kelsey, known in Detroit as the Giant of Elsa Street, is looking for a way to escape when a Hollywood movie scout offers her the role of Anna Swan (here is the link to the Canadian Anna Swan digital archive), the celebrated Nova Scotia giantess who toured with P.T. Barnum's "Human Marvels" traveling show.

Told in parallel, while Andorra is seen as a disgrace by an embarrassed family, Anna Swan (born 1846) becomes a famed attraction as she falls in love with Gavin Clarke, a veteran of the Civil War. Both women struggle to prove to the world that they are more than the sum of their measurements. "A genial, appealing celebration of two strong, independent women; recommended for fans of historical fiction." Especially for those who enjoyed The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker.

In The Unquiet Dead * * by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Detective Esa Khatta, head of Canada's new Community Policing Section specialized in handling minority-sensitive cases, is called in to investigate the death of wealthy businessman Christopher Drayton, found at the bottom of a bluff near his home in Lake Ontario. As Esa and his partner Detective Rachel Getty dig into the background of Drayton, it is evident that this upstanding Canadian citizen is in truth, a Bosnian war criminal - Lieutenant Colonel Drazen Krstic, with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 where thousands of Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered. As Khattak and Getty interview imams and neighbors and sort out what justice really means, they are forced to navigate the lingering effects of a horrible conflict and their own broken lives.

"In her spellbinding debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan (a former law professor with a specialty in Balkan war crimes) has written a complex and provocative story of loss, redemption, and the cost of justice..." "Readers of international crime fiction will be most drawn to the story, but anyone looking for an intensely memorable mystery should put this book at the top of their list."

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #526

Lady Montfort's (Clementine Elizabeth Talbot) annual summer ball is the highlight of the season, not just for the household but for the county, and all their London friends. With the millions of details to be seen to, her ladyship relies heavily on her capable and resourceful housekeeper Edith Jackson, a handsome woman in her early thirties. The 1912 ball went off without a hitch. Even the weather was perfect to show off the Montfort's new sunken garden. Tragedy strikes in the early hours of the next morning when the gamekeeper finds a body, hanging in a gibbet that turns out to be that of Teddy Mallory, Lord Montford's dishonorable nephew, just expelled from Christ Church, Oxford.

When it was discovered that a new housemaid and one of their London guests also disappeared during the night, Scotland Yard gets involved. After unwittingly witnessed a violent confrontation between her son Harry, Lord Haversham and Teddy in the early evening, Lady Montfort fears that the official police inquiry is pointing towards her son as a potential suspect. Taking matters into her own hands, the countess enlists the help of Mrs. Jackson, to investigate the case.

In Death of a Dishonorable Gentleman "an enchanting debut, author Tessa Arlen (incorporates) exquisite period detail into her well-mannered mystery, offers readers an engaging peek into the lives of upper and lower classes of early 1900s England combined with a little history interspersed." For those who enjoyed English country house mysteries like Gosford Park and Kate Morton's The House at Riverton.

If the elegant estate on the jacket cover brings to mind another establishment depicted in a long-running Masterpiece Theatre TV series, it's intentional. In fact, Tessa Arlen will participate in a panel discussion entitled Downton Malice: British Historical Period Mysteries at the Malice Domestic convention in Bethesda, Maryland, Sunday, May 3, 2015.

Historical mystery fans interested specifically in the Edwardian era may wish to check out the author's Redoubtable Edwardians blog, choke-full of fabulous information and readalikes.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #525 - “At some point you have to stop running and turn around and face whoever wants you dead. The one thing is finding the courage to do it.” ~ Suzanne Collins

The Fire Sermon * * * by award-winning poet Francesca Haig has been billed as The Hunger Games meets The Road - a richly imagined first novel in a new post-apocalyptic trilogy, and is poised to become the next must-read hit.

Four hundred years after a catastrophic nuclear fire destroyed much of Earth and its civilization, genetic mutation dictates that each human is born with a twin. Of each pair, one (an Alpha) is physically perfect, the other (an Omega) is burdened with some form of deformity. While the Alphas are designated as the ruling class, the Omegas are branded and banished to strictly controlled colonies. For all their superiority, Alphas cannot escape one harsh fact: whenever one twin dies, so does the other.

Cass is a rare Omega, one burdened with psychic foresight. While her twin, Zach, gains power on the Alpha Council, she dares to dream the most dangerous dream of all: equality. For daring to envision a world in which Alphas and Omegas live side-by-side as equals, both the Council and the Resistance have her in their sights.

"Haig's prose is gorgeous and engaging, particularly when she describes the desolate landscape, now peppered with ruins from the Before. Fans of dystopias will appreciate this adventure-filled yet character-focused tale that offers hope and explores (in a refreshingly nuanced way) the moral complexities involved in defeating an oppressive and backward government structure."

A great addition to the recent crop of dystopian novels.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #524 "There are cities that get by on their good looks, offer climate and scenery, views of mountains or oceans, rockbound or with palm trees; and there are cities like Detroit that have to work for a living..." ~ Elmore Leonard

Called a "powerful, timely debut" The Turner House * * by Angela Flournoy is especially poignant for readers in Southeast Michigan.

Set in Detroit's East Side, it is the story of an American family spanning five decades, from the Second Great Migration in the 1940s to the present, weathering the series of boom-and-bust associated with the auto industry and the history of the city.

Francis and Viola Turner raised all thirteen of their children in the house on Yarrow Street. Now widowed and ailing, Viola is forced to head to the suburbs and move in with Cha-Cha (Charles), her eldest. The house, once a proud symbol of working-class respectability, now stands among abandoned lots and urban plight, and is worth just a tenth of its mortgage. The Turner children must gather to decide its fate.

Narrating the family saga are Cha-Cha, who feels the full burden of being both father and brother to his 12 siblings; Troy, a former vet and a disillusioned policeman, wants to illegally short sell the house; and Lelah, the youngest daughter whose gambling addiction has cause her her job, her apartment, maybe even her family, finds it necessary to squat in the Yarrow Street house unbeknownst to her siblings.

"The Turner House brings us a colorful, complicated brood full of love and pride, sacrifice and unlikely inheritances. It's a striking examination of the price we pay for our dreams and futures, and the ways in which our families bring us home."

"Flournoy's writing is precise and sharp..., the novel draws readers to the Turner family almost magnetically. A talent to watch."

The author, a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a former librarian, grew up on the west coast but spent time throughout her childhood at her grandparents' home on Detroit's East Side. She will be at the Chelsea District Library on Saturday, April 25th as part of the Midwest Literary Walk. Click here for details and other near-by opportunities to meet the author.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #523

Publicity-shy UK debut author (we really don't know much about him) Mason Cross sets his electrifying thriller (and the first in a projected series) The Killing Season * * in the heartland of the USA.

2 weeks before his scheduled execution, convicted mass-murderer Caleb Wardell (nicknamed 'The Chicago Sniper') escaped in an ambush, during a late-night transfer on a rural road. It appeared that someone knew exactly where and when, and Wardell was not even the target.

Within hours, the FBI calls in Carter Blake to assist in a task force to find Wardell before the ensuing public hysteria once the news of the escape leaks out. Blake, a man with a specialized talents in finding those who don't want to be found, teams up with Elaine Banner, the Bureau's rising star who is privately juggling life as a newly-single mother. Racing against the clock and Bureau politics, they must track Wardell down as he cuts a swathe across America, apparently killing at random, just for the thrill of it, and always a step ahead of them.

"Cross keeps the pace breakneck, the suspense high, and the body count higher. Wardell is a terrific villain: intelligent, disciplined, resourceful, and utterly twisted. Banner is a single parent stretched between her daughter and her career. Blake is an enigma, but readers can trust that Cross will fill in his backstory in future novels."

For Jack Reacher and John Rain fans.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #522 "I think all families are creepy in a way." ~ Diane Arbus

"(W)holly absorbing and emotionally rich", contributing editor of Vanity Fair Lili Anolik (Princeton, MFA Boston University) sets her debut Dark Rooms * * in an exclusive New England prep school.

Edgar Allan Poe once observed that "the death of a beautiful woman is, unquestionably, the most poetical topic of the world." Nica Baker is beautiful - a 16 year old homecoming queen, popular, secretive and utterly wild. She has been murdered - a single gunshot wound, found not far from home. The police was quick to close the case when another classmate from Chandler Academy (a private feeder school to the Ivies) committed suicide, leaving a note as confession, apparently unrequited love gone wrong. But Grace, Nica's older sister was not convinced.

Deferring her enrollment to Williams, Grace takes a job on campus and obsessively goes about trying to identify the real killer. As she starts to penetrate the myriad lies and secrets in this insular community, the picture that emerges is far from pretty - especially condemnable are the adults they have come to respect and trust. "However, the story line just scratches the surface of this insightful, complex novel, which is all about angst: broken relationships, class and social issues, the human psyche. "

"Compulsively readable, (it) combines the verbal dexterity of Marisha Pessl's Special Topic in Calamity Physics and the haunting atmospherics and hairpin plot twists of Megan Abbott's Dare Me." Readers who enjoyed Reconstructing Amelia and The Starboard Sea might find much to like here too.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #521 "Grief is a curious thing, when it happens unexpectedly. It is a Band-aid being ripped away, taking the top layer off a family. And the underbelly of a household is never pretty, ours no exception." ~ Jodi Picoult

Staten Island native Eddie Joyce (Harvard, Georgetown Law) sets his debut Small Mercies in familiar territory.

Ten years after their youngest son Bobby, a firefighter perished during 9/11, the Amendolas, an Italian-Irish American family is trying to come to terms with their loss. Mother Gail, a recently retired-schoolteacher starts her day by checking on Bobby's room as if she might find him there. Father Michael, a former firefighter himself is watchful and devoted but suffers quietly from guilt and missed opportunities. Older brother Peter, ambitious and brash, escapes to Manhattan and is living the good life of a corporate attorney. Franky, the middle child forever the misfit, still cannot hold a job or his liquor. Tina, Bobby's widow, is finally ready to look towards the future.

As the family gathers together for Bobby Jr.'s birthday party, they must each find a way to accept a new man in Tina's life while reconciling their feelings for their lost loved one. "Presented through multiple points of view, Small Mercies explores the conflicts and deep attachments that exist within families. Heart-wrenching and profoundly relatable, Joyce's debut is a love letter to Staten Island and a deeply affecting portrait of an American family."

For other well-observed portraits of the American family, we suggest Alice McDermott's After This; Stewart O'Nan's Wish Your Were Here; Jami Attenberg's The Middlesteins; and Richard Russo's Empire Falls.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #520

Plague Land * * by S.D. Sykes. Dispatched to a monastery at the age of seven, now at seventeen Oswald de Lacy assumes the title Lord of Somershill Manor when his father and two older brothers too, succumb to the Plague that has decimated the countryside. Left at home are his overbearing mother and his dangerous and unmarried sister Clemence.

In quick succession, local villagers Alison Starvecrow and her sister are found murdered, which the ambitious village priest blames on a band of demonic dog-headed man. It is now Oswald's responsibility to solve the crimes. But every step Oswald takes seems to lead him deeper into a dark maze of political intrigue, family secrets and violent strife.

"Sykes adds an intricate and intriguing debut (the first of a planned series) to the ever-widening pool of medieval-era mysteries. Thrilling plot twists and layered characters abound in this rich tale of murder and mystery in 14th-century Kent."

Readers might enjoy watching the Brother Cadfael series, based on mysteries by Ellis Peters; and Hugh De Singleton series by Melvin R. Starr.

Sadly, this brings to mind The Siege Winter, a stand-alone by the late Ariana Franklin (and completed upon her death by her daughter Samantha Norman), whose award-winning series based on the character of Adelia Aguilar, a medieval woman forensic pathologist will be fondly remembered by historical mystery fans.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #519 - “When we are children we seldom think of the future. This innocence leaves us free to enjoy ourselves as few adults can. The day we fret about the future is the day we leave our childhood behind.” ~ Patrick Rothfuss

Man at the Helm * by Nina Stibbe (Love, Nina : a nanny writes home), an impressive first novel, has been compared to P. G. Wodehouse in its pacing; and Gerald Durrell's memoir My Family and Other Animals (1956), about an eccentric family's relocation to the Greek isle of Corfu, and a BBC Masterpiece Theater adaptation.

The narrator, 9-year old Lizzie Vogel has lived a charmed life. But when his homosexual affair is discovered, Lizzie's father packs them off to the tiny village of Flatstone, where life for the Vogels takes a drastic turn. The new neighbors are hostile and disapproving (of divorcees and fatherless children), and Lizzie's theatrical mother slips ever more into drinks, pills, and obsessive playwriting. Lizzie and her all-knowing older sister fear that the infamous Crescent Homes for Children is in their future, unless they could find a new husband for their mother, and a new "man at the helm" for the household. As one unsuitable suitor follows another, chaos ensues. Lizzie confronts the downright craziness of grown-up love and learns that sometimes a family needs to veer catastrophically off-course in order to find true happiness.

"An extraordinarily well-written, deeply satisfying read about an unusual, highly entertaining group of people." "Charming and bittersweet, with a very English flavor, this social comedy is distinguished by Stibbe's light touch and bright eye." Check out the New York Times Review.

Everlasting Lane * by Andrew Lovett is "(a) captivating, absorbing, and suspenseful evocation of the spells of childhood in a timeless coming-of-age tale."

After the death of his father, 9-year old Peter Lambert moves with his mother to the village of Amberley, and a cottage on Everlasting Lane. As the new kid, he is befriended only by the other two outcasts in his class - chubby Tommie and the neighborhood bossy Anna-Marie. Escaping the bullies, they find pleasure and solace in the countryside and soon meet up with local eccentrics who prefer solitude.

At home, Peter is disturbed by the growing awareness that his own aggrieved mother might be falling apart - first by changing her name, and then expressly forbidding him from entering a locked room in the attic.

Written in beautiful prose, "as charming and haunting as the movie Stand By Me... (w)ith nods to such children's classics as Alice in Wonderland, Lovett's first novel, inspired by events from his own childhood, contemplates the often very fine line between imagination and reality."

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #518 - “Why aren’t midwives the heroines of society that they should be? Why do they have such a low profile? They ought to be lauded to the skies, by everyone.” ~ Jennifer Worth

I have been unashamedly hand-selling The Secrets of Midwives by Sally Hepworth in the past weeks and so far, great reports from everyone who've read it.

Former Australian (Melbourne) Event Planner Sally Hepworth sets her US debut in Providence/Conanicut Island (RI) where three generations of midwives called home. This is a lovely story about family, and at the heart of the matter - "biology was only part of it".

In the 7th month of her pregnancy, Neva Bradley, a third-generation midwife, is still determined to keep the identity of the baby's father hidden from her family and co-workers. Though her mother Grace has a hard time accepting Neva's request for privacy, her grandmother Floss, a retired midwife herself, is handling the news with great understanding, having kept a bombshell-of-a-secret in the front pocket of her handbag for five decades.

As Neva's due date approaches, her decision to raise her child as a single parent turns complicated when her best friend, Patrick Johnson, a McDreamy pediatrician offers to be the baby's father while two other likely candidates (Neva is never quite sure) actually have claims on the title. When a difficult birth threatens Grace's license, and Floss suffers a heart attack, secrets are revealed; and the family rallies to usher in Neva's baby, born during a horrific winter storm.

"This intelligent, well-plotted debut will draw readers in from the very first word and keep them engaged until the end." Readers interested in further exploring the topic of midwifery would delight in Midwives by Christopher Bohjalian; the Hope River series by Patricia Harman; and let's not forget Call the Midwife, a BBC series adaptation of Jennifer Worth's memoir.

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