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

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #346

No snippets of reviews. No author endorsements. Just me this time, from the heart.

1987. Ronald Reagan, Fortran, Gunne Sax dresses, the AIDS hysteria.

14 yr.-old June Elbus - weird, awkward and a loner, has just lost her uncle Finn, her only friend and the love of her young life. His last gift is a portrait he painted of June and her older sister Greta, with the enigmatic title Tell the Wolves I'm Home *. The title is clear, only to June who is fascinated with the Middle Ages and the woods behind her school, a refuge she shares with a pack of howling wolves.

While the community gossips and judges, June mourns. The rest of her family is just angry - with Finn, a renowned artist, for contracting AIDS, and Toby, a young man with a checkered past, for killing him. A beautiful Russian teapot and a plea beyond the grave bring June and Toby together. Their unlikely friendship is clandestine by necessity, problematic in nature, and misunderstood by all who matter most.

This compelling, coming-of-age debut is a moving story of love, loss, and renewal. It seriously challenges the meaning and our understanding of family and home, and the power of compassion. Memorable, this I guarantee.

Originally from NY (where the novel is set) and now living in the UK, debut novelist Carol Rifka Brunt's work has appeared in several literary journals. In 2006, she was one of three fiction writers who received the New Writing Ventures award. She received an Arts Council (UK) grant to write Tell the Wolves I'm Home.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #345

Alif the Unseen * *, Alif - the first letter of the Arabic alphabet is the code name for a young Arab-Indian hacker in an unnamed Middle Eastern security state. He makes a good living working behind layers of firewall, shielding himself and his clients from "The Hand" - the all-knowing government electronic security force, run by the man who is now engaged to his beloved.

Driven underground, Alif discovers Alf Yeom (The Thousand and One Days), the secret book of the jinn, which may unleash a new level of information technology and for him, a lifeline.

"With shades of Neal Stephenson, Neil Gaiman, Philip Pullman, ...Alif the Unseen is a tour de force debut, a sophisticated melting pot of ideas, philosophy, religion, technology and spirituality smuggled inside an irresistible page-turner".

" (An) intriguing-sounding blend of cyberfantasy and The Arabian Nights ".

G. Willow Wilson is the author of a graphic novel Cairo (2007) and a memoir The Butterfly Mosque. She divides her time between the US and Egypt and Alif, her first prose novel, was completed during the season of the Arab Spring.

Here is a recent Publishers Weekly interview with the author.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #344 - The Highly Irregular Irregulars

Hey folks, meet Harry and Buck.

Harry Lipkin, Private Eye * (by first-time novelist Barry Fantoni) 87 yr.-old Miami PI takes on cases the police have no interest in, like trying to catch the household help who has been stealing heirlooms and gems from a wealthy widow. With a weakness for blintzes and lemon tea, and can't stay awake on a crucial stake-out, Harry still gets the job done. The final scene when Harry gathers all the suspects in a typical country-house caper fashion is as startling to Harry as it is to the reader. But never mind that! This "slim semicozy" with Harry's splendid first-person observations about south Florida folks is sure to please.

Harry's twin separated at birth (just kidding) is Buck (Baruch) Schatz. In Don't Ever Get Old * * * * by Daniel Friedman, this 87 yr.-old retired Memphis cop when summoned to the death bed of a fellow WWII POW, is shocked and dismayed to find out that a vicious Jew-hating Nazi guard is alive and enjoying a stolen fortune in gold, right here in America.

Chain-smoking, abrasive, and forgetful - with a cop's watchfulness and his .375 Magnum still intact, Buck goes on a quest with his well-meaning chatterbox of a grandson in tow, but not counting on a murderous crew coming out of the woodwork, all with claims on a piece of the fortune. "With all the finesse of a garbage truck at a flower party, Buck is pure pleasure to watch."

"Short chapters, crackling dialog, and memorable characters make this a standout debut."

They might be old but it would be a big mistake to count them out.

* = starred review

* * * * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #343

As reviewers praised Anne Korkeakivi's An Unexpected Guest * as a "beautifully modulated first novel... a knowing comedy of manners, a politically charged thriller and a genuinely moving study of the human heart", readers @ goodreads are divided. I'll let you be the judge.

Over the cause of one day (as in Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway), Clare Moorhouse, the American wife of a British diplomat in Paris, methodically, with great attention to the every detail, arranges an official dinner which could help clinch a much-deserved ambassadorship for her husband. As she cuddles the temperamental cook, deliberates over the menu, debates with the florist over her selections, juggles last-minute additions to the guest list, her day is complicated by the unexpected arrival of a delinquent son, a good-Samaritan encounter with a suspected assassin, and a ghost from the past she thought buried in another life time.

While the bulk of the novel is interior as we travel the day with Clare, the pace picks up dramatically with the departure of the dinner guests. The day's events and rumination prompt Clare into action, as she seeks redemption for past regrets, and tries to safeguard her son from repeating her mistakes.

"An Unexpected Guest will draw you in and keep you breathlessly turning pages, even as you admire its intelligence and fine writing" ~ Thomas E. Kennedy.

* = starred review

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