Fabulous Fiction Firsts #356

Anyone interested in rollicking adventure, puzzle-solving/code-breaking, the history of books and printing, digital technology, conspiracy theory, secret societies, quirky San Francisco (Did I catch just about everybody?) would find Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore * immensely enjoyable. (Coming out in October, I will be doing a lot of hand-selling in the meantime. Get on the waiting list if I were you. )

It didn't take long for Clay Jannon, an unemployed graphic artist/web designer to realize that Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is anything but the obvious. Working the grave-yard shift, his customers never buy but "borrow" archaic volumes according to some elaborate scheme. Mr. Penumbra's strict missive of never looking into any of the volumes produces just the opposite effect and soon, Clay finds himself, and his willing dot.com recruits plunging (Googlers figure prominently in the plot and the solution) head-long into a heroic quest of complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, and digging at the truth behind secrets that reach back to the famous Venetian printer Aldus­ Manutius. "A gleeful and exhilarating tale".

"With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that's rare to the world of literary fiction."

Debut novelist Robin Sloan, a native of Michigan is a gradate of Michigan State University (Economics). He was a member of the Media Partnerships team at Twitter before becoming a writer and a "media inventor".

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #355

In Courtney Miller Santo's debut novel The Roots of the Olive Tree, five generations of the firstborn Keller women live together in the same house on a secluded olive grove in the Sacramento Valley. Headed by Anna, the 112-year-old matriarch, still sturdy in body and sharp of mind, they have an unique ability to live long, healthy lives.

It is this ability that draws the interest of a geneticist who plans to interview them. But his visit, and the unexpected arrival of the youngest member of the clan sparks tension. Old grudges reignite as new revelations and shocking secrets come to light.

"Santo paints a moving portrait of an extraordinary, yet flawed, family". For fans Kaye Gibbon's Charms for the Easy Life; Prayers for Sale by Sandra Dallas; and the Elm Creek Quilts series by Jennifer Chiaverini.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #354

Two debut novels sharing the same title, each very distinct and worlds apart. But fantastic, just the same.

In Silver * * by Rhiannon Held, Andrew Dare, a werewolf enforcer/protector for the Roanoke pack, picks up a scent no one has ever encountered. It belongs to beautiful "Silver" - wild and crazy, having been tortured and injected with silver into her veins.

She represents a terrible threat to every Were on the continent unless Andrew join forces with her. While tracking down her attacker and the menace behind the threat, they discover their own power and their passion for each other. "Urban fantasy takes a walk on the wild side"

"The combination of engaging characters and a well-developed world will leave readers anxiously awaiting the next installment. A must-read for fans of Kelley Armstrong's Bitten (2001), another compelling werewolf story".

For perilous game of pack politics, try Toby Barlow's award-winning Sharp Teeth * *.

For fans of the recent crop of exceptional urban fantasies of Glen Duncan's The Last Werewolf, and Anne Rice's The Wolf Gift.

Silver: return to Treasure Island * by biographer and UK poet laureate Andrew Motion, is a sequel to Robert Louis Stevenson's Treasure Island. It picks up twenty years later and finds Natty, the daughter of Long John Silver, teaming up with Hawkins' son, Jim, on a dangerous voyage to the legendary island in search of their fathers' hidden treasure.

This "clever and satisfying high-seas tale of madness and brutality, treachery and courage, resourcefulness and romance" is not to be missed.

* = starred review
* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #353

In Benjamin Wood's The Bellwether Revivals *, bright, bookish Oscar Lowe escapes his squalid upbringing and finds new life amid the colleges and spires of Cambridge as a care assistant at a local nursing home. Lured into the chapel at Kings College by the otherworldly organ music, he meets and falls in love with Iris Bellwether, a beautiful and enigmatic medical student, and her brother Eden's exclusive circle of the very wealthy and privileged.

Eden, a charismatic but troubled musical prodigy, believes that music can cure, and convinces their close-knit circle to participate in a series of disturbing experiments, thus putting in motion the devastation foretold in the gripping opener, "two people lie dead, and a third sits nearby, barely breathing".

"A sophisticated debut novel about the hypnotic influence of love, the beguiling allure of money and the haunting power of music".

For fans of the PBS Masterpiece Mystery Inspector Morse and Inspector Lewis series created by Colin Dexter, many of which are based on his novels, set in Oxford.

Another great academic mystery set in Cambridge is the second in the Detective Constable Lacey Flint series Dead Scared * * (2012) by S. J. Bolton, a brilliant psychological thriller, and a follow-up to Now You See Me (2011).

British-born Benjamin Wood was awarded a Commonwealth Scholarship to attend the MFA Creative Writing Programme at the University of British Columbia, Canada, where he was also the fiction editor of the literary journal PRISM international. Wood is now a lecturer in creative writing at Birkbeck, University of London.

* = Starred review

* * = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #352

Called "majestic," "compelling," and "mesmerizing," debut novelist Amanda Coplin's The Orchardist * * fully lives up to the hype.

Set in early-20th-century Washington State, it follows a makeshift family through two tragic decades. William Talmadge toils alone in his orchard at the foothills of the Cascade Mountains when two starving, heavily pregnant teenage girls, Jane and Della, turn up on his land, and into his care. Their pursuer is an opium addict, and the ensuring violence leaves only Della and Jane's baby, Angelene, to be nurtured by Talmadge and his close friend Caroline Middey, an herbalist. Tragedy strikes again when Angelene is 13, setting in motion a disastrous chain of events that engulfs Talmadge and everyone he cares for.

"Coplin refuses to sentimentalize. Instead, she demonstrates that courage and compassion can transform unremarkable lives and redeem damaged souls. In the end, three graves side by side, yet this eloquent, moving novel concludes on a note of affirmation."

"A breathtaking work from a genuinely accomplished writer."

"Coplin's depictions of uniquely Western personalities and a stark, gorgeously realized landscape" bring to mind Kent Haruf's Plainsong, and The Outlander by Gil Adamson.

Readers might also try the Winner of the 2010 Governor General's Award (and a US debut) , Juliet in August (originally published as Cool Water) by Dianne Warren, set in a tiny Canadian town in Saskatchewan, a blink-and-you-miss-it dusty oasis on the edge of the Little Snake sand hills.

For more on The Orchardist, read NPR's review and interview with the author.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #351

With a lot of the men off fighting at the various fronts, 1943 Berlin is virtually a City of Women * *.

Beautiful Sigrid Schröder stoically copes with a tedious job, a hostile mother-in-law, rationed food, air raids, the constant fear of denouncement and that (Gestapo) knock on the door. Sigrid is sustained by her secrets - afternoons spent at the cinema and the stolen hours with a Jewish lover. Though cautious and street-smart, Sigrid is unwittingly drawn into dangerous activities by a young neighbor's appeal for help. When her husband returns wounded and embittered from the Russian Front, things quickly become treacherous.

"World War II Germany may be familiar ground, but David R. Gillham's (debut) novel—vividly cinematic yet subtle and full of moral ambiguity, not to mention riveting characters—is as impossible to put down as it is to forget."

"This is an exemplary model of historical fiction generously laced with romance, suspense, and exciting plot twists. Readers who enjoy the grim side of historical fiction or who prefer romance infused with eroticism will find this novel appealing."

For fans of Alan Furst whose loosely connected Night Soldiers novels, set just prior to and during the Second World War, are superb historical espionage thrillers, "in the tradition of Eric Ambler and Graham Greene".

Readers might be reminded of Julie Orringer's romantic WWII saga The Invisible Bridge , and Julia Franck's The Blindness of the Heart, a touching depiction of the horrors of war on a human scale.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #350 - Remembering Marilyn

August marks the 50th Anniversary of Marilyn Monroe's death but the appetite and obsession with this universal icon have never waned in the intervening years. Just in the past year, we saw the Hollywood adaptation of Colin Clark's memoir My Week with Marilyn and Smash, the 2012 successful television series (renewed for another season), a musical based on Marilyn's life.

Now we have J.I. Baker's The Empty Glass *, a "heartbreaking, pulse-quickening" novel that delves into one of the greatest mysteries of the 20th century.

Los Angeles County deputy coroner Ben Fitzgerald arrives at the scene of Monroe's death and finds her diary. The deeper Ben reads into the diary, the deeper he finds himself embroiled in a conspiracy far bigger than he can imagine. Then there were the photos taken of the night stand next to Marilyn's bed, where no water glass was found, contradicting a second set of photographs being used in the investigations.

Debut novelist James Ireland Baker is the executive editor of Condé Nast Traveler and had worked for various national magazines. He is a founding editor of Time Out New York.

If fact is more to your liking than fiction, then check out a new biography by Lois Banner Marilyn :The Passion and the Paradox *.

As one of the founders of the field of women's history, Lois Banner (Scholar/Faculty, USC) appreciates the complexities of Monroe's personal life in the context of her achievements as an actor, singer, dancer, comedian, model, and courtesan. In the research, she gained access to material no one else has seen (personal papers, interviews with Kennedy's Secret Service detail). The new information she unearthed is nothing short of revelatory.

"A passion for precision and truth fuels Banner's electrifying portrait of an artist caught in a maze of paradoxes and betrayals. Here is Marilyn as we've never seen her before."

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #349

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry * is currently enjoying a lot of media interest. Debut novelist Rachel Joyce's is an award-winning playwright for BBC Radio 4 after a long career as an actor for the Royal Shakespeare Company. Pre-publication blurbs by the likes of Helen Simonson (Major Pettigrew's Last Stand) didn't hurt either.

The pilgrimage is a 627 miles trek over 87 days from a small village in South Hams to Berwick-upon-Tweed. It is "unlikely" because Harold Fry, a solitary and sedentary retired brewery salesman, on his way to the mailbox, decides to walk (in his yachting shoes) to Queenie Hennessy, a colleague he hasn't seen or heard from in 20 years. Queenie is dying and wrote to say goodbye. A chance encounter in a convenience mart convinces Harold that Queenie will live if he delivers his message in person, and perhaps settle their unfinished business.

Solitary walks are perfect for imagining how one might set the world to rights, and Harold does just that, although not always with uplifting results, as he ruminates on missed opportunities and failed relationships. Before you know it, he is on the news and to his chagrin, he has acquired himself followers, whose stories "surprised and moved him, and none have left him untouched". But ultimately, it is the readers who are touched - by this ordinary man on an extraordinary journey of self-discovery.

A contemporary take on The Canterbury Tales, and The Pilgrim's Progress, but also "a novel of deep beauty and wisdom about the human condition".

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #348

If you are a fan of Paul Dorion's Mike Bowditch and Linda Castillo's Kate Burkholder, mystery series set in small towns, then you would find much to like with Julia Keller's debut A Killing in the Hills * * * (and hopefully, the first in a projected series).

Like Mike (game warden, wilderness Maine), and Kate (police chief, Amish Country, Ohio), it is homecoming of sorts for Bell (Belfa) Elkins, the prosecuting attorney for Raythune County, WV. Few know of her past, not even at Acker's Gap, where 29 years ago her 10 year-old world came apart in a brutal murder.

Now 3 elderly men are gunned down, execution-styled at a local diner on a busy Saturday morning. Carla, Bell's rebellious daughter with anger issues, is one of few witnesses who has a good look at the killer but she is not about to tell her mother. As the investigation flounders, more bodies pop up around town, Carla decides to track down the killer as a way to repair the fragile relationship with her mother. In the meantime, Bell is determined to get to the bottom of the case involving the death of a 6 year-old at the hands of his handicapped friend.

Born and raised in West Virginia, Chicago Tribune Pulitzer-winning journalist Keller has fashioned a debut mystery with "an impeccably paced plot, supple prose, and indelibly drawn characters... A page-turner with substance and depth, this is as suspenseful and entertaining as it is accomplished."

* * * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #347

Janus Rock, named after the two-faced mythological god is a tiny strip of an island 100 miles off the coast of western Australia. For the lighthouse keeper and his family, supplies and contact with the outside world arrive every three months, and shore leaves years apart. For Tom Sherbourne, a WWI war hero who survived unspeakable horrors, The Light Between Oceans * * * means much-longed for solitude and purpose, a steady and predictable daily rhythm, meaningful work, and maybe finally peace.

Then one day, a boat washes up on Janus Rock with a dead man and a baby who is very much alive. For Isabel, his young, high-spirited and loving wife, it is clearly God's gift to them after two miscarriages and a stillbirth. Against Tom's better judgment, they claim her as their own and name her Lucy. This decision sets off a chain of events that would devastate not only their little family on Janus Rock, but a whole town.

Debut novelist M. L. Stedman sweeps us into a story about extraordinarily compelling characters caught in the dilemma of doing the right thing versus doing what feels right. We watch in agony as they navigate blind the slim divide between life and death, duty and desire, truth and responsibility, justice and mercy, sacrifice and redemption.

" (E)xquisite and unforgettable, a deeply moving novel."

"A polished, cleverly constructed and very precisely calculated first novel".

Readalike : Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge, The Bird Artist by Howard Norman, and Jeanette Winterson's Lighthousekeeping.

* * * = starred reviews

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