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 it 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

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #499

Having been a fan of Tony Parsons for many years now, I have been waiting with bated breath for The Murder Man * - his first try at crime fiction. And let me tell you, you won't be getting much sleep.

Meet DC Max Wolfe - recent widower (to cancer), single father (daughter Scout, 5), indulgent owner (Stan, holy terror of a puppy), insomniac, caffeine junkie, and a new transfer to London's Homicide and Serious Crime.

Someone has been violently killing members of London society. First, it was Hugo Buck, a pedigreed banker with an appetite for the hired help. Then there was the homeless junkie Adam Jones. Nicknamed "Bob the Butcher" by the press and social media, the killer is strong enough and smart enough to kill with a single knife stroke, and bold enough to kill in public. The victims first appeared to have absolutely nothing in common, except for a decade-old group photograph. Wolfe noticed that at each of the murder scene, someone had painted in blood "#KILLALLPIGS".

The hunt leads Wolfe to Potter's Field, an exclusive private school; a long-buried brutal murder; and right into the killer's path.

"Spectacular - tense but human, fast but authentic..." ~ Lee Child

"A relentless plot, evocative prose, and compelling (and wrenching) portraits of the characters, good and evil, conspire to make this a must-read. And I have two words for hero Max Wolfe: More. Soon." ~ Jeffery Deaver

Enough said.

If you are fascinated with the private (sorry, public school) culture, you might also enjoy The Secret History, Donna Tartt's debut novel (arguably her best, in my humble opinion); and A Murder of Quality, an early George Smiley novel by John Le Carre.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #498 - "Sometimes, one wants to have the illusion that one is making ones own life, out of ones own resources.” ~ Zadie Smith

Poet and short story writer Greer Macallister's debut novel The Magician's Lie * has been described as Water for Elephants meets The Night Circus.

1905. On a warm summer evening in Waterloo (IA), The Amazing Arden, "the most famed female illusionist in the world" vowed to do the impossible as she "weave (her trademark) web of beautiful illusions to snare them, a glittering trap that drags them willingly with me into the magical, false, spellbinding world". The only deviation from her routine - she would use an axe in her notorious trick of sawing a man in half on stage.

When Arden's husband was found lifeless beneath the stage later that night, young police officer Virgil Holt who was part of the audience happened upon the fleeing illusionist and took her into custody. Over the course of one eerie night, Virgil must decide whether to turn Arden in or set her free... and it will take all he has to see through the smoke and mirrors as Arden recounted a life and a career "more moving and spectacular than any of her stage acts".

"(W)ell-paced, evocative, and adventurous... a top-notch novel."

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #497 - “To invent, you need a good imagination and a pile of junk.” ~ Thomas A. Edison

For those interested in the history of books and printing, you simply cannot pass up Gutenberg's Apprentice * * * by Alix Christie - "(a)n enthralling literary debut that evokes one of the most momentous events in history, the birth of printing in medieval Germany - a story of invention, intrigue, and betrayal, rich in atmosphere and historical detail, told through the lives of the three men who made it possible."

Caught at the center of the Gutenberg/Fust saga is Peter Schoeffer. At 25, an up-and-coming scribe at the Sorbonne, he is summoned home to Mainz by his father Johann Fust who adopted the orphaned Peter and spared no expense in his education. It turns out that Fust, a wealthy merchant and bookseller has met & financed the workshop of the "most amazing man", and to whom he intends to apprentice Peter.

Johann Gutenberg, a driven and caustic inventor, has devised a revolutionary machine he calls a printing press. Resentful at having to abandon a prestigious career as a scribe, Peter begins his education in what the Catholic Church condemns as "the darkest art".

As his skill grows, so, too, does his admiration for Gutenberg and his dedication to their daring venture: copies of the Holy Bible, Peter finds himself torn between two father figures: the generous Fust, and the brilliant, mercurial Gutenberg, who inspires Peter to achieve his own mastery. "Despite obstacles posed by the Church, guilds, family, and friends, Fust, Gutenberg, and Schoeffer's tenuous collaboration culminates in the Gutenberg Bible."

"An inspiring tale of ambition, camaraderie, betrayal, and cultural transformation based on actual events and people, this wonderful novel fully inhabits its age." Readers who enjoyed The Justification of Johann Gutenberg by Blake Morrison might very well get the rest of the story here.

A note about the author... Native Californian Alix Christie dedicates this book to a long line of master printers, including the two master letterpress printers she apprenticed with. A published journalist who turned to fiction in the 1990s, she now lives in London.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #496

Classical violinist Louisa Treger (biography) depicts the life and loves of Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957), one of the most important writers of the 20th century in a fictional biography The Lodger, - "(a) compelling story of one woman tormented by unconventional desires."

The novel opens in 1906 with Dorothy Richardson being invited to spend a weekend in the country with her old school friend Amy Catherine (called Jane now) and her new husband Bertie (H.G.) Wells, a writer hovering on the brink of fame. The sumptuous meals and idyllic seaside setting stand in sharp contrast to Dorothy's attic room in a seedy Bloomsbury boarding house, and her £1/week wage as an assistant to a Harley Street dentist.

But what draws Dorothy most (though he first appears unremarkable) are Well's grey-blue eyes and "his intellect and impish nature". Despite her good intention not to betray her friend, Dorothy free-falls into an affair with Bertie.

When a new boarder arrives at the boarding house, the beautiful Veronica Leslie-Jones, Dorothy finds herself caught between Veronica and Bertie. Amidst the personal dramas and wreckage of a militant suffragette march, Dorothy finds her voice as a writer.

"The early 1900s weren't exactly a friendly time for single women in London, and the book does a wonderful job of showing Dorothy's desire for independence as well as her fear of being alone... Treger's writing flows easily and the book is impeccably researched (including Richardson's twelve-volume autobiographical novel-sequence Pilgrimage), making this an enjoyable read."

"Dorothy Richardson may not be a household name, but Treger's novel does a fine job of showing just how compelling her life was in this novel full of passion, history and literature." For readers who enjoy Virginia Woolf (who btw, considered Richardson a literary rival) and Edith Wharton.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #495 - “It's the questions we can't answer that teach us the most. They teach us how to think." ~ Patrick Rothfuss

The Question of the Missing Head: An Asperger's mystery by E.J. Coopperman (as Jeff Cohen when he writes nonfiction) introduces a new series featuring Samuel Hoenig, a man with Asperger's Syndrome - "an increasingly popular diagnosis given to people displaying a constellation of behaviors often associated with autism—inflexible thinking, reduced ability to read social cues, constricted range of interest." But Samuel's observational skills and heightened cognitive and linguistic functioning make him an ideal owner (and sole employee) of his New Jersey-based business called Questions Answered.

When Marshall Ackerman, chief administrator of the Garden State Cryonics Institute insists on him solving the mystery of a missing preserved head in their high-tech laboratory, Samuel, being a non-driver, conscripts his current client, a Miss Washburn to accompany him to the scene of the crime. Upon arrival, the urgency of finding the missing head is overshadowed when Dr. Rebecca Springer, one of the facility's scientists, is found murdered, in a locked room.

"In this well-crafted story, the Asperger's element, rather than becoming a distraction, provides a unique point of view on crime-solving, as well as offering a sensitive look at a too-often-misunderstood condition. "

"(A) delightful and clever mystery".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #494 - “Magic: it was what happened when the mind met the world, and the mind won for a change.” ~ Lev Grossman

The Paper Magician by Charlie N. Holmberg is "an extraordinary adventure both dark and whimsical that will delight (readers) of all ages."

19 year-old Ceony Twill, graduated (at the top of her class) from the Tagis Praff School for the Magically Inclined, arrives at the cottage of Magician Emery Thane with a broken heart. Despite her dreams of being a smelter, she has been assigned as a "Folder," (paper magic) - the lowest in the hierarchy in the pantheon of magicians.

Things get off to a rocky start when she is greeted at the door by a paper skeleton, but under the tutelage of the amiable Emery Thane, Ceony learns to bring the most amazing paper creatures to life. That is until Emery's past comes back to haunt him. To save her teacher's life, Ceony must face an Excisioner—a practitioner of dark, flesh magic and embark on an unbelievable adventure.

Just released is The Glass Magician, the sequel.

If you have been floundering for something magical to read since The Night Circus, your wait is over. Fans of Karen Russell and Lev Grossman might want to check these out too.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #493 - “I think cinema, movies, and magic have always been closely associated. The very earliest people who made film were magicians.” ~ Francis Ford Coppola

Named 2008 Film Blogger of the Year by GQ (check out Self-Styled Siren), and freelance movie reviewer for the New York Post Farren Smith Nehme entertains and intrigues readers and film buffs alike with Missing Reels * - a "totally cinematic debut novel of young love, old movies, and an epic search for a long-lost silent film."

New York in the late 1980s. Ceinwen Reilly has just arrived from Yazoo City, Mississippi. Her min. wage job at a vintage store stretches barely to cover a shared shabby walkup on Avenue C; cigarettes; and her passion - classic movies. One day, Ceinwen, wearing one of her retro finds elicits a comment from their elderly neighbor Miriam. A glimpse of a photograph convinces Ceinwen of Miriam's starring role in the silent films.

When a charming British mathematician Matthew Hill breezes into Ceinwen's life, bringing wit, conversations, romance, and an introduction to Matthew's mentor who is a silent film history aficionado, Ceinwen (with Matthew trailing along) begins earnestly researching and tracking down the reels of Miriam's long-lost film masterpiece.

"The amateur gumshoes quickly find themselves immersed in a subculture of quirky film enthusiasts housing aging reels in basements, university archives, and private clubs across the city."

"A novel as winning and energetic as the grand Hollywood films that inspired it, Missing Reels is an irresistible, alchemical mix of Nora Ephron and David Nicholls that will charm and delight."

Feeling a little star-struck? You might enjoy:
The Age of Dreaming by Nina Revoyr; Not Without You by Harriet Evans; The Actress by Amy Sohn; Fame by Tilly Bagshawe; and Sunnyside by Glen David Gold.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #492 - “I believe in being strong when everything seems to be going wrong... I believe that tomorrow is another day, and I believe in miracles.” ~ Audrey Hepburn

Miracle in a Dry Season * by Sarah Loudin Thomas is set in the small town of Wise, WV. (First in the Appalachian Blessings series)

Rumors and speculations swirl around single mother Perla Long and her 5 yr.old daughter Sadie when she comes to live with her uncle and aunt. Casewell Phillips, a church elder and a confirmed bachelor is charmed when he meets beautiful Perla, and before long, he is crafting doll furniture for Sadie. But like the townfolks, he is cautious of her past that hints of sordidness, and suspicious of her singular talent of producing literally an endless feast out of meager rations.

When a severe drought hits Wise, folks are torn between gratitude for Perla's gift, small-town gossip, and a minister bent on judgment. Perla and Casewell must look deep into their hearts and faith for guidance if they are to have a future.

"Thomas's fiction debut offers sympathetic, wholesome protagonists seeking to live faithful, prayerful lives and engaging supporting characters in subplots that explore the overarching themes of forgiveness, redemption, and the wideness of God's love."

Fans of Ann Tatlock, Karen Kingsbury, and Lisa Wingate now have a new author to watch.

* = starred review

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