Fabulous Fiction Firsts #556 - " I am from there. I am from here. I am not there and I am not here. I have two names, which meet and part, and I have two languages. I forget which of them I dream in.” ~ Mahmoud Darwish

In the Language of Miracles * * a first novel by Rajial Hassib portrays an Egyptian American family and the tragedy that threatens to tear their lives apart.

Samir and Nagla Al-Menshawy appear to have attained the American dream. The leafy New Jersey suburb of Summerset is a long way from their cramped apartment while Samir was a medical resident, and certainly a world away from their native Egypt. With a thriving medical practice and three children, the Al-Menshawys feel confident of their place in the community - until a devastating turn of events that leaves their eldest son Hosaam and a dear friend and neighbor's daughter Natalie Bradstreet dead, turning the Al-Menshawys into outcasts in their own town.

The novel opens during the five days leading up to the memorial service that the Bradstreets have organized to mark the one-year anniversary, with the Al-Menshawys expressively excluded. The surviving Al-Menshawy must come to term with his/her role in the tragedy; the desperation to reconcile with the community; and a way to move forward.

"Writing with unflinchingly honest prose, Rajia Hassib...paints tender portraits of a family's struggle to move on in the wake of heartbreak, to stay true to its traditions, and above all else, to find acceptance and reconciliation."

"Steeped in Arabic culture and the Muslim faith, as well as sharply observant of immigrants' intricate relationships to their adopted homelands, this exciting novel announces the arrival of a psychologically and socially astute new writer."

Reader who enjoyed Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng; and Before and After by Rosellen Brown might want to give this a try. A sound choice for book groups interested in issue-driven discussions.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #555 - “All cannot be lost when there is still so much being found” ~ Lemony Snicket

The Book of Lost and Found by Lucy Foley. Art student Kate Darling does not know much about her mother, June. As an orphan, she was adopted by the childless heiress Evelyn Darling who nurtured and coached her to become a world renowned ballerina. A year after June's untimely death in a plane crash, Evelyn (Evie) unburdened herself of a guilty secret to Kate and bequest her with an exquisite drawing of a young woman who looked very much like a young June. This sent a grief-stricken Kate on a quest for the true identity of the woman in the portrait and her connection to her mother.

Her search takes Kate from London to Corsica, to Paris, and eventually to New York, revealing a love story that began in the wild 1920s and was disrupted by war, derailed by circumstances.

"Foley deftly handles narratives by multiple voices that move seamlessly back and forth from the 1920s to 1986, with a vivid section set in Nazi-occupied France, as (the star-crossed lovers) are separated by happenstance, war, and deceptions as painful as they are well meant. A lovely and moving debut."

Inspired by true events, The Girl Who Wrote in Silk, Kelli Estes' "brilliant and atmospheric" debut serves as a poignant tale of two women determined to do the right thing, and the power of our own stories.

While exploring her beloved aunt's Orcas Island estate, Inara Erickson comes across an elaborately stitched piece of fabric hidden in the house. Working with Daniel Chin, a local professor of Asian studies, Inara learns the story of the sleeve's creator, Mei Lein, a survivor of the Chinese Exclusion Act, in the late 1800s to rid Seattle of its Chinese community.

Through the stories Mei Lein tells in silk, Inara uncovers a tragic truth and the connection to her own ancestor, one who would soon be commemorated in a city park, forcing her to make an impossible choice.

"Carefully crafted and perfectly paced, the novel takes readers on a deeply satisfying, memorable journey. Part mystery and part romance, the novel is also a fascinating look at an often forgotten period of Pacific Northwest history and a moving reminder of the stories we all share."

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #554

Coming in at the #1 spot of September LibraryReads List is The Art of Crash Landing, a debut novel by Melissa DeCarlo.

"Irresponsible. Undependable. Erratic." - that how 30 year-old free-lance photographer Mattie Wallace describes herself. Broke and knocked up, with all her worldly possessions crammed into six giant trash bags, and nowhere to go, she drives the 800 miles to claim a bequest left to her by a grandmother she has never met, knowing full-well that this might be one last chance to turn things around.

When she arrives at the tiny town of Gandy, Oklahoma, her grandmother's estate turns out to be meager at best but she does have the key to her mother's childhood home. The kindness of strangers, most of whom knew her mother gives Mattie the opportunity to uncover the mystery that turns a happy, talented teenager into the broken alcoholic mother that she knows. Uncovering what started her mother's downward spiral might be the only way to stop her own.

"Hilarious, gripping, and unexpectedly wise,... first-novelist DeCarlo deftly weaves in flashbacks about Mattie's childhood and creates a cast of wonderfully full-blooded, fallible characters,... Best of all is Mattie herself, who has cultivated a measure of humanity in addition to impressive survival skills and whose briskly told story is instantly involving."

For readers who enjoyed The Time of My Life by Cecelia Ahern; Girls in Trucks by Katie Crouch; and Contents May Have Shifted by Pam Houston.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #553

Longlisted for the 2015 Man Booker Prize, Did You Ever Have a Family * * * *, the debut novel by literary agent/memoirist Bill Clegg is a powerful story about finding solace in the least likely of places in the wake of a horrific tragedy.

An early morning explosion destroyed not only her historic farm house but everyone June Reid holds dear - the daughter and her fiance who would be married that day, her ex-husband, and her much-younger boyfriend, Luke - a troubled young man who seemed to have finally found his footing in this small Connecticut community. June, being the only survivor, finds it hard to remain. Numbly, she drives across country, landing at the Moonstone motel in the Pacific Northwest.

"What follows is a propulsive but tightly crafted narrative that moves back and forth in time and from character to character as Clegg builds out his opening scene to take in those sometimes surprisingly affected, " - from the florist who finds an appropriate use of the wedding flowers; the caterer who would never be paid; Luke's mother, Lydia Morey who continues to suffer abuse from a town unable to forgive her youthful transgressions and mourns the son just reclaimed; the 16 year-old pothead who knows more about the fire than he is willing to admit; to the owners of the Moonstone Motel who patiently reach out to June yet giving her space, sensing that she is "the most alone person... half in the world and half out of it."

"Elegant and heartrending, ...Did You Ever Have a Family is an absorbing, unforgettable tale that reveals humanity at its best through forgiveness and hope. At its core is a celebration of family - the ones we are born with and the ones we create." A particularly sober reminder "that we live to love and be loved, and that we should tell each other so before the moment slips away." Suggested readalikes: Thomas Matthew's We Are Not Ourselves (2014), and Red Hook Road (2010) by Ayelet Waldman.

Readers of Anne Enright and Michael Cunningham would not want to miss this.

Listen to a The New York Times podcast with Bill Clegg discussing this novel and the origin of the title.

* * * * = 4 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #552 - “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.” ~ Martin Buber

Winner of the 2012 Wilhelm Raabe Literature Prize, Imperium: a fiction of the South Seas * * by Swiss novelist/screenwriter Christian Kracht is "an outrageous, fantastical, uncategorizable novel of obsession, adventure, and coconuts."

In this fictionalized tale about August Engelhardt (1870-1919), a German citizen who founded a sun-worshipping, coconut-eating cult, who purchased a small island in Dutch New Guinea, where he lived as a nudist. Madness eventually took hold and further isolated him from the few people on the island who cared about him. "Comparable to the adventure stories of Robert Louis Stevenson, Jack London, and Daniel Defoe, albeit with a definite philosophical inclination."

Come Away With Me by Karma Brown. A patch of black ice on Christmas Eve will change Tegan Lawson's life in ways she never could have imagined. Almost consumed by grief (of losing her baby) and anger (at her husband Gabe who was driving) until she is reminded of their Jar of Spontaneity, a collection of their dream destinations and experiences, and thus, begins an adventure of a lifetime and a search for forgiveness.

"A warmly compelling love story, with flashbacks that start with the couple's meeting as freshmen at Northwestern eight years earlier, this becomes a wrenching account of dealing with unbearable loss. Have tissues at hand for Brown's deeply moving debut."

Wishful Thinking by Kamy Wicoff is the answer to every single parent's dream. Jennifer Sharpe is barely able to keep her head above water as she juggles a demanding boss and even more demanding children and their schedules... that is until a brilliant physicist secretly installs a miraculous time-travel app on her phone that allows her to be in more than one place at the same time. Jennifer is almost literally, beside herself with glee, and is hopefully hooked... until the inventor threatens to remove the app from her phone for breaking the rules.

"(A) modern-day fairy tale in which one woman learns to overcome the challenges and appreciate the joys of living life in real time."

In The Canterbury Sisters by Kim Wright, Philadelphia wine critic Che Milan is dumped by her longtime lover on the same day that her mother's ashes arrive on her doorstep, with a note reminding Che of a half-forgotten promise to take her mother to Canterbury. So she joins a group of eight women to walk the sixty miles from London to Canterbury Cathedral. In the best Chaucer tradition, the women swap stories as they walk, each vying to see who can best describe true love.

Through her adventures along the trail, Che finds herself opening up to new possibilities in life and discovers that the miracles of Canterbury can take surprising forms.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #551

The title - Everybody Rise *, a first novel by the Loeb Award-winning investigative reporter at The New York Times Stephanie Clifford, is taken from the Stephen Sondheim lyric to Ladies Who Lunch.

Set in the years leading up to the 2008 financial collapse, 26 year-old Evelyn Beegan finally lands a real job with a social-media start-up called People Like Us that aims at the elites, by overselling her New England prep school and society connections that are at best, marginal. Now she must deliver. Hoping to impress her new bosses by recruiting Camilla Rutherford ("the clear center of young New York") as a new member, she is not above using her good friend Preston Hacking ("a Winthrop on his mother's side,") to gain entry to the Adirondack camps, thick with socialites, Wall Streeters and Who's Who.

Evelyn has long felt like an outsider to her privileged peers, and despises her mother's social-climbing ways, but now she is forced to embrace them. With endless rounds of charity events, regattas, debuts, and excessive shopping and dining, Evelyn soon finds the lure of belonging intoxicating, and starts trying to pass as old money herself. When her father's unfortunate downfall becomes public, she chooses to distance herself rather than to rally around family.

"A masterful tale of social climbing and entrenched class distinctions, as seen through the eyes of an outsider who desperately wants in. Tense, hilarious, and bursting with gorgeous language. Stephanie Clifford is a 21st-century Edith Wharton." Will appeal to fans of The Bonfire of the Vanities by Tom Wolfe and Rules of Civility by Amor Towles.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #550

An international bestseller, first published in German in March 2012, Death in Brittany * * by Jean-Luc Bannalec (a pseudonym) introduces the first case of Commissaire Georges Dupin.

At the height of the tourist season, Commissaire Georges Dupin, the cantankerous Parisian transplant to the coastal town of Concarneau, is dragged from his morning croissant and coffee to the village of Pont-Aven, where the 91-year-old hotelier Pierre-Louis Pennec has been found murdered in his restaurant.

Dupin and his team identify five principal suspects, amony them a rising political star, a longtime friend of the victim, and a well-respected art historian. The case is further complicated when a second death occurs and a painting (perhaps a genuine second version of Gauguin's famous Vision After the Sermon) disappears from Pennec's hotel. As Dupin delves further into the lives of the victims and the suspects, he uncovers a web of secrecy and silence in this picture-perfect seaside village that once played host to Paul Gauguin and other post-Impressionist painters in the 19th century, members of the loosely connected Pont-Aven School.

"Dupin is fascinating to watch - he's both cranky and enthusiastic... The star of the mystery, though, is Brittany. Bannalec feeds the reader with intriguing bits of history (for example, Bretons are descended from the Celts, who fled Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasions) and culture, along with bracing glimpses of centuries-old stone buildings, river banks, and the sea."

For mystery fans who enjoyed the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series by Fred Vargas; the Chief Magistrate Antoine Verlaque series by M.L. Longworth, set in charming and historic Aix-en-Provence; and Martin Walker's delightful Bruno Courreges series set in the fictional town of St Denis, in the picturesque Perigord region of rural France - featuring the consummate cook and locavore who happens to be the Chief of Police.

* * = 2 starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #549

"A literary thriller", Dragonfish * * * by Whiting Award winner Vu Tran is the "nuanced and elegiac, noirish first novel" of an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Robert Ruen, an Oakland (CA) cop with an anger management issue is forced at gunpoint to travel to Las Vegas in order to help find Suzy, his Vietnamese ex-wife who has disappeared from her new husband, Sonny, a violent Vietnamese businessman, smuggler and gambler. As Robert pursues Suzy through the sleek and seamy gambling dens of Las Vegas, shadowed by Sonny's sadistic son, "Junior," he realizes how little he knows of her - from her perilous escape from war-torn Vietnam, to the dangers and hazards in a Malaysian refugee camp where she first met Sonny.

Parallel to Robert's investigation is a secondary narrative in the form of letters to a daughter Suzy abandoned decades ago, throwing light on a woman debilitated by sorrow and haunted by ghosts and guilt.

"Vu Tran takes a strikingly poetic and profoundly evocative approach to the conventions of crime fiction in this supple, sensitive, wrenching, and suspenseful tale of exile, loss, risk, violence, and the failure to love."

"A superb debut novel…that takes the noir basics and infuses them with the bitters of loss and isolation peculiar to the refugee and immigrant tale. " (Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air). Also check out this week's The New York Times Book Review for Chris Abani's review (and podcast), whose The Secret History of Las Vegas would be an interesting readalike.

Vu Tran will be participating in the Suspenseful Reads panel at this year's Kerrytown Bookfest. September 13, at 2:45 at the Kerrytown Concert House.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #548 - “I don't believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.” ~ Maya Angelou

The Lake Season "sparkles with wry wit, sweet romance, and long-kept family secrets", is the first adult fiction by YA author Hannah Roberts McKinnon.

Iris Standish arrives at her childhood lakeside home in the midst of the whirlwind of activities in preparation for her sister Leah's wedding, just when her own marriage to a high-power lawyer is coming apart. As Iris work through how her carefully-constructed life spins out of control while helping Leah with the preparations for her wedding, both learn more about themselves and each other than they ever thought possible.

"McKinnon’s voice is sharp and evocative…Making use of a gorgeous setting and serious themes, this novel rises above a flock of fluffier beach reads."

The Second Sister by Marie Bostwick, is her first stand-alone (from her Cobbled Court Quilts series) in many years.

Political campaigner Lucy Toomey’s hard work is about to pay off now that her candidtae is entering the White House. But when her estranged older sister, Alice, unexpectedly dies, Lucy is drawn back to Nilson’s Bay, her small, close-knit, Wisconsin hometown. To meet the terms of Alice’s eccentric will, Lucy must take up residence in her sister’s cottage, and over time, begins to see the town, and Alice’s life, anew.

"Bostwick depicts the mental and emotional struggle Lucy undertakes as she grieves a sister she never truly knew and weighs small-town life against the bustle of Washington, D.C."

Whiskey & Charlie by Annabel Smith is (a) "sharp perceptive (debut) novel about family and forgiveness."

Like most identical twins, (William) Whiskey and Charlie were thick as thieves as children though they were polar opposites. By the time they reach adulthood, they are estranged. Charlie is repulsed by Whiskey's flashy ad-executive lifestyle and his impulsive marriage to the lovely Rosa. But when a freak accident puts Whiskey in a coma, Charlie is forced to face the fact he may never speak to his brother again.

"Whiskey and Charlie is a wise, clever exploration of making mistakes and facing up to them, of sibling rivalry, the damage it can do, and the ways family can make us whole."

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #547

The industry buzz on Kitchens of the Great Midwest * by TV producer (The History Channel and the Discovery Channel) J. Ryan Stradal has been relentless for weeks. The latest is the review in The New York Times. (Also check out the reviews in the L.A. Times and the Petoskey News where a pivotal scene is set).

Eleven year-old Eva Thorvald does not fit in - not with her hard-working, well-meaning but unsophisticated parents or the kids at school. She finds comradery in her cool cousin Randy who has a troubled history with the law, and solace in the prized hydroponic chocolate habaneros she cultivates in her closet. When her ingenious attempt to even the score with the bullies lands her in hot water, she bolts for the big city (Evanston, IL) where her cousin Braque is a college student. Eventually she would become the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, and in the process, comes face to face with the secret her loving family tried to shield her from.

"Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises." Recipes included.

"(A) big-hearted, funny, and class-transcending pleasure. It’s also both a structural and empathetic tour de force, stepping across worlds in the American midwest, and demonstrating with an enviable tenderness and ingenuity the tug of war between our freedom to pursue our passions and our obligations to those we love.” ~ Jim Shepard

"(A) charming, fast-moving round robin tale of food, sensuality and Midwestern culture..." ~ Janet Fitch

Readalikes: Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe; Mangoes and Quince by Carol Field; and La Cucina : a novel of rapture by Lily Prior.

* = starred review

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