Fabulous FIction Firsts #334

The Green Shore opens in Athens, on an April evening in 1967, when a military coup in Greece ushered in a period of devastating brutality and repression. Told from the multiple perspectives of one family that share strong political conviction, it is "a family saga and revolutionary romance."

Eleni, a widowed doctor, struggles with the latest challenge to democracy when the hospitals are forbidden to treat torture victims. While son Taki chooses to emigrate, 21 year-old Sophie, a student of French literature, gets swept up in the dangerous resistance movement, partly inspired by her uncle (Eleni's brother) the poet Mahalis. The youngest, Anna, watches events unfold with increasing anxiety.

"As Eleni's family and their circle of friends and lovers fight for their ancient country's history, tradition, beauty, and future, they also discover hidden strengths and harbor secret longings that will have unforeseen repercussions. Deeply imbued with the passion and honor synonymous with Greek culture, abundant with sensuous imagery and stimulating discourse, this debut novel is a sumptuous and provocative portrait of the nexus of the personal with the political."

Debut novelist Natalie Bakopoulos is a graduate and current faculty of the University of Michigan. A recipient of a 2010 O. Henry Award, a Hopwood Award, and Platsis Prize for Work in the Greek Legacy, she is a contributing editor for the online journal Fiction Writers Review. Each summer she teaches creative writing at the Aegean Arts Circle in Andros, Greece.

On Tuesday, June 5th @ 7 pm, Natalie Bakopoulos will be at Nicola's Books for a reading and signing of her novel. For more info.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #333

Three weeks is a long time to fuss with a blog and it's time to let go. I still don't think I am doing this book justice but I hope you will trust me about this "luminous, haunting, and unforgettable" debut novel by Karen Thompson Walker. The premise is rather simple while the narrative voice is not.

The world awakes one Saturday morning in October to find the rotation of the Earth on its axis slowing down (thus The Slowing). Days and nights grow longer. Gravity is affected. Birds can't fly and people are getting sick. In a California suburb, 11 yr. old Julia is dealing with the catastrophe utterly "unimagined, unprepared for, unknown", with stoic determination and optimistic innocence.

The Age of Miracles * * is middle school - "the time when kids shot up three inches over the summer, when breasts bloomed from nothing, when voices dipped and dove". While some girls turn beautiful, a few boys grow tall, Julia still looks like a child. Apart from the usual adolescent angst of friendship, first love, budding sexuality, Julia must navigate her family's volatile dynamics and secrets; learn the meaning and demands of loyalty, honesty, kindness, and responsibility, against the backdrop of an ever-shifting reality.

"Walker (a former Simon & Schuster editor) captures each moment, intimate and universal, with magical precision. Riveting, heartbreaking, profoundly moving".

Inspired by the Tsunami which packed a force powerful enough to shorten the length of the day by microseconds, the rights to this debut have been sold to 25 countries, with an initial print run of 100,000 - HUGE.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #332

The colorful notes taken by Evangeline (Eva) English for A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar *, the working title of a travel guide, make up one of two story lines in this debut novel by Suzanne Joinson.

In 1923, sisters Eva and Lizzie, missionaries in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar are met with suspicion and hostility (no surprise there), but when a humanistic endeavor gone wrong places them under house arrest, their safety is seriously compromised. Eva, however, continues to capture her adventures in this insular and exotic locale at the brink of war on her glorious, green BSA Lady's Roadster.

In present day London, solitary Frieda befriends Tayeb, a displaced Yemeni sleeping outside her door, and discovers an artist with an exquisite talent with birds. When Frieda learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.

"Beautifully written, and peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters, the novel interweaves the stories of Frieda and Eva, gradually revealing the links between them and the ways in which they each challenge and negotiate the restrictions of their societies as they make their hard-won way toward home".

For more tales of intrepid women adventurers, try Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson; The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment; and The Lost Girls : three friends, four continents, one unconventional detour around the world by Jennifer Baggett.

Suzanne Joinson works in the literature department of the British Council, specializing in the Middle East, North Africa, and China.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #331


Wife 22 * * is "smart, fresh, entertaining, moving and incredibly funny" (I can't say it any better) and perhaps, one of the best Women's Fiction titles this year.

Let's see how YOU would answer the following questions:

#10 Do you believe love can last?
#44 What do you believe should NOT be done in public?
#50 If your spouse gave you one free pass to have sex with another person, who would you choose?
#80 Define passion in one sentence
#88 Has your life turned out the way you would hoped it would?

Like these? Thankfully, debut novelist Melanie Gideon (author of The Slippery Year: A meditation on happily ever after: a memoir, and 2 YA novels: Pucker and The Map That Breathed) provides in an appendix these 110 questions - some survey-generic, some philosophical & probing, some downright invasive but all seriously provocative.

Alice Buckle: spouse of William, mother to Zoe and Peter, part-time drama teacher and Facebook chatter, downloader of memories and Googler of solutions is also "Wife 22". Readers will be privy to her honest and witty response to an anonymous survey on marital satisfaction. Over time, her correspondence with Researcher 101 has taken an unexpectedly personal turn, and soon, she comes dangerously close to making a decision that will affect more than her happiness.

Rights sold to 19 countries and optioned for film. Perfect escapism and a breezy, delightful summer read.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #330

Joining a recent crop of fictional biographies of famous women and their little-known love affairs such as The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and Romancing Miss Brontë is Rosie Sultan's Helen Keller in Love.

No doubt we are all familiar with Helen Keller's early education as depicted in The Miracle Worker, a play by William Gibson (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960, and adapted into an Oscar-winning feature film in 1962), but we are less likely to remember her for her strong interest in women's rights, universal suffrage, and social activism. Very little is written about her private and emotional life.

This debut novel imagines a 30-something Helen's love affair with Peter Fagan, a brass young journalist hired to step in as her secretary when Annie Sullivan was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Their daily sensual interactions of signing and lip-reading with hands and fingers quickly set in motion a liberating, passionate, and clandestine affair, which was met with stern disapproval from her family and Annie. Helen is caught between the expectations of the people who love her and her most intimate desires.

"Richly textured and deeply sympathetic", it vividly depicts Helen's inner life and her feelings of utter dependence and loneliness and her desperate desire to be treated as a woman.

Rosie Sultan (website), winner of a PEN Discovery Award for fiction, has taught writing at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, and Suffolk University. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #329

I have done nothing in the last 2 days except immersing myself in Beatriz Williams's Overseas, a rather puzzling title (the connection will be revealed in due course) for this most appealing romantic fantasy (or is it a paranormal romance?).

Independent, ambitious, smart Kate Wilson, an analyst at Sterling Bates (Bear Stearns, you think?) catches the eyes of British billionaire hedge fund mogel (and a 5-star client) Julian Laurence. The chemistry is undeniable and the flirty emails promise a whole lot more. Then Julian begs off. Kate is crushed. Months later, they finally connect, after a timely rescue at Central Park. (You get the picture, no violins but some nice Chopin, courtesy of Mr. there-is-nothing-he-can't do).

Of course disaster strikes, fast, furious, but not entirely out of the blue, though Julian did! Kate finds out that Julian is actually Julian Laurence Ashford, aristocratic WWI hero/poet, supposedly killed in 1916 in France. Now a mysterious and malevolent force is out to destroy them. It seems like Kate, with her 21st century sensibility and toughness is the only one who could travel back in time, reverse the course of history to save them.

This debut novel which won two Romance Writers of America awards already, is poised to become the sizzling read this summer. Comparison is being made to Diana Gabaldon and Anne Fortier. Fans of the movie Pretty Woman will delight in the frame of the novel - the Cinderella storyline, the Manhattan glitterati (a ruby necklace made an appearance here as well), and sometime, if we are lucky, love could rescue us.

Readers interested in the scenes set in World War I Amiens might check out historical notes at the author's website. The character Julian Laurence Ashford is actually based on biographical details from a number of historical figures. Amiens is also the setting for Sebastian Faulks' "intensely romantic yet stunningly realistic" Birdsong, recently adapted into a PBS Television Masterpiece Classic.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction "Firsts" #328

Gillespie and I is British author Jane Harris' second novel (first in our collection), and a follow-up to her award-winning The Observations (2006).

Writing her memoirs in her Bloomsbury flat in 1933, Ms. Harriet Baxter recounts the summer of 1888 when she traveled to Glasgow as a well-heeled, youngish spinster, eager to embrace the excitement of the International Exhibition.

Untethered, self-assured but nevertheless adrift and grieving from the recent death of her kindly aunt, Harriet was immediately drawn to Ned Gillespie, a young, immensely talented painter and his large, eccentric family. "The initially playful narrative tone darkens decidedly as the double mystery of Ned's eventual suicide and Harriet's reliability as a memoirist steadily unpeels."

This "elegant novel of love, loss and redemption among the Victorians and Caledonians", is "irresistible and unforgettable". Already long listed for the Orange Prize, and shortlisted for the Galaxy National Book Awards, it "places (Harris) alongside Michel Faber, D.J. Taylor, and Sarah Waters as a gifted 21st-century conjuror of new 19th-century novels incorporating our own era's sensibilities while deeply honoring the milieu of the characters she creates."

"A rewarding, gripping, and disconcerting novel".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #327

True * is author Riikka Pulkkinen's first novel available in English. A graduate of the University of Helsinki, she received the Kaarle Prize and the Laila Hirvisaari Prize in 2007 for her first novel The Border.

Haunting and melancholic, True is forty years of family secrets and untold history, gradually teased out through the voices of the three generations of the Ahlqvist women. Elsa, a world-renowned child psychologist is dying. Daughter Ella, a brutally efficient physician and granddaughters Anna and Maria are struggling to cope, but have accepted Elsa's wishes to spend her remaining days at home. When Elsa proposes a dress-up picnic in the spring sunshine, Anna pulls out a lovely dress hidden for decades in a closet - a dress that belongs to Eeva, her mother's nanny. Eeva's forgotten story, whom her grandparents have been silent about for years, is finally revealed layer by layer through Elsa's painful recounting and Anna's probing, and resonates with her own loss. As Eeva once observed : "Love is always true".

"Pulkkinen has a fine eye for description and infuses her characters with longing". "The emotional intelligence of the prose avoids melodrama to develop authentic poignancy." A fine writer to watch.

"Beautifully translated by Lola M. Rogers to capture the full chill of a Finnish winter and the lightness of its spring,"

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #326

Absolutely, you won't get an argument from me that Unholy Night is not the first novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, but it is his first departure from zombies and vampires. Good enough reason for me.

Alright, it is another one of his "evolution in dark historical revisionism" but what fun. And thanks to that "brilliant and twisted mind", you will never look at The Nativity the same way again.

Did you ever wonder about the "Three Wise Men"? Who were they? Why the strange gifts? What happened to them? In Grahame-Smith's telling, they were infamous thieves dressed in borrowed finery, led by the charming, elusive and murderous Balthazar as they stumbled upon the Holy family in the famous manger after a daring escape from Herod's prison. Before they could make off with the gifts, Herod's men began to slaughter the first born in Judea, and they cast themselves, reluctantly at best, as the Holy Family's escort in their flight into Egypt. Thus began a heart-stopping, swashbuckling adventure.

The action, danger, intrigue, and humor is palpable but what impressed me most are the ingenious, unexpectedly poignant back stories he has created for the biblical figures - from the young, ambitious and secretly decent Pontius Pilate; Mary, the mouthy, sassy 15 year-old who is tough and surprisingly maternal; to the cruel, mad and diseased King Herod.

Film rights for Unholy sold ($2 million) to Warner Bros. before its publication. Seth Grahame-Smith wrote Tim Burton's film Dark Shadows (being released May 2012) and the screenplay for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a previous novel, in theaters June 2012.

Readalike: Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon ; illustrated by Gary Gianni.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #323 (Revised)

NEWS!!!! (April 17, 2012) This title has just been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the only first novel on the list.

Debut novelist Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles * "combines the poetic drama of (Homer's) The Iliad with a 21st-century understanding of war, sex, sexual politics, and the Trojan War."

This epic retelling of the legend of Achilles from the view point of Patroclus centers on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, the exact nature of which has been a subject of dispute in both the classical period and modern times. An exiled Greek prince, Patroclus is taken in by King Peleus, and along with the king's golden son Achilles, is trained in the arts of war and medicine. Their tentative friendship, and later a deep and passionate love that "stands firm in the face of the disapproval of their elders, dire prophecies, and the wrath of the gods" unfortunately forces them to make the ultimate sacrifice.

"Miller's degrees in Latin and Greek as well as her passion for the theater and the history of the ancient world have given her the tools to create a masterly vision of the drama, valor, and tragedy of the Trojan War" .

Comparison to historical fiction by Mary Renault is obvious, but check out an in-depth exploration in Neal Wyatt's RA Crossroad where you will find thoughtful lists of Read-Alikes, as well as audios and videos on the subject and historical period.

* = starred review

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