Fabulous Fiction Firsts #480

The Frozen Dead * * by Bernard Minier is the U.S. release of an international best-seller set in the French Pyrenees. Saint-Martin-de-Comminges is a remote small town, reached only by cable car, where winters are harsh and the wind relentless. On a brisk snowy morning, workers arriving for seasonal service of the hydroelectric power station discover a horrific scene - a headless, flayed body of a horse is suspended from the edge of a frozen cliff.

The charismatic, Latin-quoting Commandant Martin Servaz of nearby Toulouse is called on to investigate this priority case since the Thoroughbred belongs to non-other than Eric Lombard, CEO of a multinational company and member of a very influential family with strong political ties to the area.

Just a few miles away on that same day, Diane Berg a young psychiatrist from Geneva starts her first job at the Wargnier Institute, a high-security asylum for the criminally insane. Uneasy with the unorthodox methods used on the patients/prisoners and some alarming behavior among the staff, Dr. Berg teams up with Commandant Servaz when DNA from one of the most notorious inmates (think Hannibal Lecter) of the asylum is found on the horse carcass.

"Complex, fast-paced, and completely absorbing. "

"The pervasiveness of evil in this tense and disturbing novel makes for very compelling reading, with the suspense bordering on horror. It should appeal to those who enjoyed Pierre Lemaitre's Alex (2013) as well as the edgier Scandinavian thrillers."

* * = starred review

South African Crime (and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #479)

The Sunday Times Fiction winner Andrew Brown introduces tormented Detective Inspector Eberard Februarie, in Coldsleep Lullaby * *, an intelligent and compelling police procedural set in Stellenbosch, in the heart of South Africa's wine region. Just released in the U.S., this series opener involves the murder of a young woman in the underworld of an old university town fraught with prejudice and sexual hedonism.

Melanie Du Preez, daughter of a prominent law professor is found floating in a river. DI Eberard Februarie, recently reinstated after an emotional meltdown is called to investigate. Eberard discovers a scrapbook of lullabies that Melanie had collected over the years, which could hold a clue to unlock the case. In alternating chapters, the readers learn of the Dutch East India Company's colonization of the region in the 17th century that ultimately plays a role in the current murder. Two other victims will die in rapid succession before the volatile case is solved.

"With its lush, detailed descriptions, Brown's debut successfully captures both the beautiful landscapes and the violent textures of South Africa's racially charged history."

Cobra (an October release) by Deon Meyer - the "King of South African crime", again probes the social and racial complexities of post-apartheid South Africa. The bodies of three people are found at an exclusive guest house in the beautiful Franschhoek wine valley. Two of them were professional bodyguards, but the renowned mathematician David Adair they were protecting is nowhere to be found. Detective Benny Griessel of Cape Town's elite Hawks found spent shell cases at the crime scene bearing a chilling engraving: the flaring head of a spitting cobra, trademark of an international assassin team.

Meanwhile, a small-time pickpocket Tyrone Kleinbooi who steals to put his sister through med school, inadvertently winds up as the Cobra next target. With the help of his colleagues, Detective Benny Griessel rushes to untangle a case that only grows more complex. From Cape Town's famous waterfront to a deadly showdown on a suburban train, Cobra hurtles towards a shocking finale and someone may not make it out alive.

Needing no introduction is the latest in the award-winning series by Malla Nunn Present Darkness *. With Christmas approaching, Detective Sergeant of the Johannesburg major crimes squad, Emmanuel Cooper's much anticipated vacation plan evaporates when a white couple has been assaulted and left for dead in their bedroom. A witness identifies the attacker as Aaron Shabalala, the youngest son of Zulu Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala -- Cooper's best friend and a man to whom he owes his life.

Readers might also explore the David Bengu series by Michael Stanley; the Jacob Tshabalala series by Richard Kunzmann; and the Heat of the Sun mini television series.

* * = 2 starred reviews
* = starred review

Sizzling Summer Reads #4 (& Fabulous Fiction Firsts #478 ) "Summer's lease hath all too short a date.” ~ William Shakespeare

The Last Kings of Sark * by Rosa Rankin-Gee (named one of Esquire magazine's 75 Brilliant Young Brits', and winner of the Shakespeare & Company's international Paris Literary Prize in 2011).

Sark, pop.400, a remote car-less Channel Island, reached only by an all-day ferry ride (or private plane) from Guernsey. Jude, a recent grad (St. Andrews and wrongly assumed to be a guy, as in Law, Hey, and the Obscure), is hired by Eddy, the patriarch of the Defoe family to tutor 16 year-old Pip for the summer before university. Thrown together by necessity, Jude and Sofi, the magnetic, mercurial family cook, quickly bond as roommates and coconspirators. Left on their own away from adult eyes, the three embark on a magical summer of exploring. Years later, as their lives take them to Paris, Normandy and London, memories of the summer they shared on Sark remain.

Debut novelist "Rankin-Gee's tactile, mellifluous prose is on full display here, as the tiniest details help fully immerse readers in the otherworldly island setting." "The fluid sexuality will be a welcome offering for readers of LGBT fiction. "

"Compelling, sensual, and lyrical..., a tale of complicated love, only children and missed opportunities."

Anne Rivers Siddons offers her fans another emotionally gripping, beach-themed read with The Girls of August.

Every August, four women gather for a week of relaxation at a beach house. This started when their husbands met at med school, and the rich Cornelia, married to the party-animal Teddy, invited them to her beach house. Cornelia didn't last, and the annual trip was suspended when Melinda (Mrs. Teddy #2) dies in a tragic accident, and the Girls of August slowly drift apart.

When "Baby," who is half the age of the other ladies becomes Mrs. Teddy #3, she attempts to reestablish the August ritual. As Rachel, Barbara and narrator Maddy gather at a remote beach house on a barrier island off the South Carolina coast, the women must come to terms with their differences and find a sense of unity in the midst of health issues, marital conflict, and infertility as they ride out a violent storm.

Not ready to bide the bare-foot season farewell? Try Sweet Salt Air by Barbara Delinsky; All the Summer Girls by Meg Donohue; The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank; The Island by Elin Hilderbrand; and A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams. Enjoy these precious last days of summer.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #477 - Spotlight on Family Sagas

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing * by Mira Jacob opens with celebrated brain surgeon Thomas Eapen sitting on his porch at his home in New Mexico talking to dead relatives. At least that is the story his wife, Kamala, prone to exaggeration, tells their daughter, Amina, a Seattle area wedding photographer. Knowing that she has been manipulated, Amina nevertheless, arranges for a visit home where she soon realizes that something may actually be wrong with her father. The trouble might be rooted in the family's visit to India some twenty years ago; the tension between her father and Ammachy, her grandmother and family matriarch; and the mystery behind the death of her older brother, the rebellious and brilliant Akhil.

"(L)ight and optimistic, unpretentious and refreshingly witty... Jacob has created characters with evident care and treats them with gentleness even as they fight viciously with each other. Her prose is sharp and true and deeply funny." "(A) winning, irreverent debut novel about a family wrestling with its future and its past."

Matthew Thomas's debut - We Are Not Ourselves * * is "a very moving book about the dangers of always wanting more."

Smart and ambitious Eileen Tumulty, dutiful daughter born to hard-drinking Irish working-class parents, looks for a better life for herself by training as a nurse. When she marries Ed Leary, a quiet neuroscientist, she is disappointed with his choice teaching at a community college despite more lucrative and prestigious offers. With their Jackson Heights (Queens) neighborhood in decline, Eileen is desperate to move out of the city (and up the social ladder), into a fixer-upper that they could ill afford. Then Ed is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.

"Thomas works on a large canvas to create a memorable depiction of Eileen's vibrant spirit, the intimacy of her love for Ed, and the desperate stoicism she exhibits as reality narrows her dreams. Her life, observed over a span of six decades, comes close to a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century. Thomas's emotional truthfulness combines with the novel's texture and scope to create an unforgettable narrative."

Thirty-five years (and 20-some titles) after her wildly successful generational saga set in Australia - The Thorn Birds (based on her family's history), Colleen McCullough returns to the genre with Bittersweet, an epic romance set in the decades after WWI, about two sets of Latimer twins, all trained as nurses but each with her own ambitions.

"McCullough's background in medicine is apparent as she seamlessly weaves in information about the history of nurse's training in Australia and the development of modern pathology. Bittersweet is both a fascinating exploration of the bonds between sisters and a fine historical novel."

* = starred review
* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #476 - "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." ~ Nelson Mandela

Long-time NPR feature reporter Martha Woodroof's debut novel Small Blessings * is one of August 2014 Indie Next Great Reads.

Tom Putnum, an English professor at a small Virginia college is resigned to a quiet hollow life, filling his days teaching Shakespeare and caring for the emotionally fragile Marjory, his wife who is a virtual shut-in. Then within a matter of days, Tom's life is upended. Twice.

Marjory is killed in a car accident and Tom learns that he has a son, product of a brief affair with a visiting poet a decade ago. Now the boy, Henry is on a train heading to live with Tom. When young Henry arrives, it's immediately clear that Tom can't possibly be his biological father, never mind his name is on the birth certificate. Even more inexplicable is the half a million dollars stashed in Henry's backpack.

Amid funeral plans, Tom and Agnes, his feisty mother-in-law, begin to make a home for Henry, with help from Rose Callahan, a charming young woman and a newcomer in town whom Tom and Marjory have befriended.

"A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings's wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels like life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never can have imagined."

Four distinct voices narrate the story in Laura McBride's debut novel We Are Called to Rise * (the title taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson) - 8 year old Bashkim, the son of Muslim immigrants from Albania ill prepared for American life; 50-something Avis whose troubled marriage is compounded by her son's abusive behavior after three tours of duty in Iraq; Roberta, a seasoned court-appointed advocate for children; and Specialist Luis Rodriguez-Reyes - injured and traumatized after losing his best friend in Afghanistan. In a single moment, these disparate lives intersect. Faced with seemingly insurmountable loss, each person must decide whether to give in to despair, or to find the courage and resilience to rise.

Set in a Las Vegas rarely experienced by tourists, it is a story about families - the ones we have and the ones we make. "It challenges us to think about our responsibilities to each other and reminds us that compassion and charity can rescue us, even in our darkest moment."

For those who enjoyed Blessings by Anna Quindlen; Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens; Made in the U.S.A. by Billie Letts; and The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #475 - “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ~ Rumi

It seems to the world that 27 year-old Holly Jefferson is finally getting back on her feet, running her bakery, Cake after losing her husband in a tragic accident almost 2 years ago, never mind that she has trouble sleeping and has no social life to speak of. The commission of a bizarre cake brings Holly into the path of Ciaran Argyll - charming, privilege, incredibly handsome, and totally out of her league. But she has to admit - sparks fly.

Since You've Been Gone British author Anouska Knight's debut, "offers up a poignant look at grief and how it can serve to inspire or cripple us in equal measure."

"The perfect summer read: warm, sexy and addictive. " ~ Jenny Colgan

In Kim Wright's The Unexpected Waltz,, Kelly, a 52-year-old wealthy widow accidentally stumbles into a dance studio where she impulsively signs up for introductory ballroom-dancing lessons, and quickly becomes drawn to the studio's colorful students and instructors. Meanwhile, her volunteer work brings her into contact with a young cancer patient who challenges Kelly to embrace her new experiences.

"(Wright) expertly guides us through a moving, layered, and lyrical exploration of transformation."

A Year After Henry by Cathie Pelletier. Approaching the one-year anniversary of Henry Munroe's death, his family is still struggling to adjust. His wife Jeannie mourns their failed marriage more than she does his death. Henry's buxom mistress Evie Cooper has taken up with his brother Larry - divorced, under-employed and unhappily living with his elderly parents. Meanwhile, Henry's teenage son, Chad, is adrift in his grief, turning to drink.

"Sensitive yet witty, Pelletier's wise examination of one of life's most tragic episodes brims with hopeful understanding."

The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney. This is the story of two women and a whole pack of dogs who, having lost their way in the world, find a place at the Sanctuary.

24 year-old Evie is clever, evasive, defiant and rebellious. Just out of rehab and utterly alone, she is determined to make a fresh start. So she lies her way to the mountaintop lodge which is home to a canine rescue and rehab center run by a handful of nuns. Never mind that Evie knows nothing about animals, she is a quick and keen learner. Drawn to the challenge, she finally finds the second chance she so desperately craves. In time, she also comes to know Mrs. Auberchon, the stern and defensive caretaker of the inn at the base of the mountain whose icy reserve masks painful secrets.

"Cooney has crafted an uncomplicated, feel-good, canine-filled tale of cross-generational friendship, healing, and solidarity."

No waiting for most of these readalikes:
Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen; Return to the Beach House by Georgia Bockoven (a FFF); The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice; and The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #474 - "But mothers lie. It's in the job description.” ~ John Green

Two young women are witnesses to their mothers' murders. One of them might be a killer.

Elizabeth Little, author of 2 nonfiction books knocks it out of the park with Dear Daughter *, an "Agatha Christie meets Kim Kardashian... (a) sharp-edged, tart-tongued, escapist thriller", which Tana French praised as "The best debut mystery I've read in a long time"; and Kate Atkinson called "A really gutsy, clever, energetic read, often unexpected, always entertaining.... In the world of crime novels, Dear Daughter is a breath of fresh air."

After spending 10 years in prison for murdering her mother, former It Girl Janie Jenkins is out on a technicality. Her memory of the night in question is hazy, and there is no love lost between them, but she is determined to chase down the one lead she has on her mother's killer. As Janie makes her way (with a false identity) to an isolated South Dakota town, she discovers that even the sleepiest towns hide sinister secrets, and will stop at nothing to guard them.

On the run from a crime blogger convinced of her guilt, a suspicious police chief, maybe even a murderer, Janie must choose between the anonymity she craves and the truth she so desperately needs.

Set in the frozen tundra of rural Montana, Bone Dust White * is Karin Salvalaggio's literary mystery debut. The insistent pounding on her door brings Grace Adams to her bedroom window where she witnesses a man coming out of the woods, stabbing a woman and leaving her to die on Grace's doorstep. Before help arrives, Grace realizes the victim is her mother, Leanne who disappeared more than a decade before.

A heavily-pregnant Detective Macy Greeley is assigned to the case. She needs to track down the killer and find out what the murder has to do with Grace. But the town of Collier is just as hard-bitten now as it was 11 years ago when Macy worked a still-unsolved grisly sex-trafficking and multiple-homicide case. But no one is talking, least of all Grace, whom Macy believes knows a lot more than she's telling.

"The sharp twists, idiosyncratic characters, and vivid setting should appeal to fans of C. J. Box and Nevada Barr."

"This complicated, peel-away-layers debut procedural intoxicates from the opening page.... Recommend for fans of Archer Mayor, Gwen Florio, and Craig Johnson."

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #473

The Miniaturist * by Jessie Burton is the sole debut among LibraryReads Picks for August 2014! And for good reasons.

After a hasty wedding on a brisk autumn day in 1686, 18 yr.-old Nella Oortman arrives at wealthy merchant Johannes Brandt's splendid home on the Herengracht Canal as his new wife. While the much older Brandt is kind but distractedly distant and consumed with the running of his business, his sharp-tongued sister Marin is less than welcoming. Nella is charmed, however, with the extraordinary wedding gift Brandt presents her - a cabinet-sized replica of their home. To furnish her gift, Nella engages the services of a miniaturist, an elusive and enigmatic artist whose tiny creations mirror their real-life counterparts in eerie and unexpected ways.

"In a debut that evokes Old Master interiors and landscapes, British actress Burton (Oxford) depicts a flourishing society built on water and trade, where women struggle to be part of the world. Her empathetic heroine, Nella, endures loneliness and confusion until a sequence of domestic shocks forces her to grow up very quickly."

"Enchanting, beautifully written, and exquisitely suspenseful, The Miniaturist is a magnificent story of love and obsession, betrayal and retribution, appearance and truth."

For readers who enjoyed Girl in Hyacinth Blue by Susan Vreeland; Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier; and The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #472 - "For other states I have admiration, respect, recognition, even some affection. But with Montana it is love." ~ John Steinbeck

Three noteworthy debuts set against the vast Montana sky, a place "(o)f wide open spaces and lives narrowly, desperately lived at the bitter ends of dirt and gravel roads."

Billings (MT) attorney (Yale Law, Oxford-Rhodes Scholar), Carrie La Seur's debut is "a blend of romance, nostalgia and suspense." The Home Place has been "part of the family for generations, ...built by her great-grandfather and represents to Alma comfort and memories of simpler and happier times." Twelve years after walking away from an accident on an icy Montana road that killed her parents, and left her younger sister Vicki maimed, an unexpected call from the local police draws the successful lawyer Alma Terrebonne back home. Vicky is dead. Whether her death is accidental or not, the lying, party-loving and drug user of a single mother left behind a traumatized daughter. Alma not only comes face to face with cold-hard realities, family secrets, small-town ways, but also her unresolved feelings for Chance Murphy, the high school sweetheart she left behind.

"Walloping in suspense, drama, rage, and remorse, this debut is an accomplished literary novel of the new West."

The #1 pick Indie Next Great Reads for August - Painted Horses * * by Malcolm Brooks captures the grandeur of the American West and prosperity of mid-1950s America.

Catherine Lemay, a young archaeologist is tasked with rescuing any historical artifacts in a Montana canyon ahead of damming and destruction for a hydroelectric project that has divided the locals, including the Crow Indians and others with an interest in the future of the land. Meeting trickery and deception at every turn, she eventually enlisted the help of the Crow girl Miriam, and John H, an artist, a former mustanger who was living a fugitive life in the canyon. When they met, intrigue sparked respect, which eventually flared into passion.

Brooks' themes suggest Jim Harrison or Cormac McCarthy and will remind readers of the great Wallace Stegner.

PEN Literary Award winner Smith Henderson sets his debut Fourth of July Creek * * in the Montana of the late 1970s-early 1980s, and explores "the complexities of freedom, community, grace, suspicion and anarchy, brilliantly depicting our nation's disquieting and violent contradictions."

Tenmile, Montana, impoverish and miles from nowhere, just the place for dedicated social worker Pete Snow who finds solace in its remoteness and plenty of dysfunctional families in need of his services. But he never expects to be a person of interest to the FBI when he takes on the case of Benjamin Pearl, a nearly feral 11-year-old boy, whose father, Jeremiah is a profoundly disturbed, paranoid survivalist.

"First-novelist Henderson not only displays an uncanny sense of place, he clearly knows rural Montana and its impassable roads, its dank bars, its speed freaks and gas huffers; he also creates an incredibly rich cast of characters, from Pete's drunken, knuckle-headed friends to the hard-luck waitress who serves him coffee to the disturbed, love-sick survivalist. Dark, gritty, and oh so good."

These debuts will appeal to fans of Rick Bass, Ivan Doig, and Larry Watson "who writes with ruthless honesty about his characters' stunted dreams, unpredictable emotions and outbursts of senseless violence, showing once again that he understands not only the West but the untamed hearts that have roamed it. "

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #471 - "Knowledge is gained through wisdom, my friend. Use the sword wisely.” ~ Brian Jacques

With swashbuckling action that brings to mind Alexandre Dumas' Three Musketeers, Sebastien De Castell launches a dynamic new fantasy series with Traitor's Blade *, where a disgraced swordsman struggles to redeem himself by protecting a young girl caught in the web of a royal conspiracy.

The Greatcoats were once the king's elite magistrates, 144 men and women whose mission was to travel the land and uphold the King's Law. But the powerful Dukes overthrew the king and the Greatcoats were scattered and disgraced. Now Falcio Val Mond and his fellow magistrates Kest and Brasti are reduced to working as bodyguards and mercenaries, jeered by the citizenry as "trattari" - tatter-cloaks, and branded as traitors. Implicated in a carefully orchestrated series of murders (including that of their employer); and the life of a young orphaned girl is at stake, they must search for a way to reunite the Greatcoats, and to restore order to Tristia, with nothing more than the tattered coats on their backs and the swords in their hands.

"This debut is a triumph of character, with every protagonist a fascination, especially Falcio, a tormented and ridiculously honorable man. Humor abounds, mostly in the sparkling dialog among our Three Musketeers-esque band of brothers..." Look for Greatcoat's Lament and Tyrant's Throne, Book 2 and 3 of The Greatcoats series already in the works.

In the meantime, you might enjoy these readalikes:

Gentlemen of the Road * * * (a personal favorite) by Micheal Chabon. In the Caucasus Mountains in 950 A.D., two adventurers wander the region, plying their trade as swords for hire, until they become involved in a bloody coup in the medieval Jewish empire of the Khazars as bodyguards for a fugitive prince. A swashbuckling adventure yarn, along the lines of The Arabian Nights.

Captain Alatriste * by Arturo Perez-Reverte, the first installment of a historical series where wounded 17th c. Spanish soldier Alatriste works as a swordsman-for-hire in Madrid.

* = starred review
* * * = 3 starred reviews

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