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

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #342

In Maggie Shipstead's debut Seating Arrangements, Winn Van Meter (New England blue blood), as he makes his way to his Waskeke island home for his (very pregnant) daughter Daphne's wedding, observes that the weekend is "not a straightforward exercise in familial peacekeeping and obligatory cheer but a treacherous puzzle, full of opportunities for wrong thing to be said and done". He should know!

In the next three days, this pristine family retreat and haven of calm will be overrun by bombshell bridesmaids, sulky siblings, old rivals, new in-laws, uninvited guests, and unforeseen circumstances. All the arrangements, planned with military precision by Winn's wife Biddy, are side-swept by forced proximity, the constant flow of alcohol, salacious misbehavior, intractable lust, and tangled history.

"Hilarious, keenly intelligent", Shipstead's irresistible social satire is "a piercing rumination on desire, on love and its obligations, and on the dangers of leading an inauthentic life".

Maggie Shipstead is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop and a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. In a recent interview, she shared that Seating Arrangements "is far from the traditional 'wedding novel' : I think this book is on the darker side of a wedding novel. Characters behave badly and grapple with regrets and doubts. The action…lurks around the periphery of their celebration.' "

Readalike for J. Courtney Sullivan's Maine (2011), a novel about family, fidelity, and social class; and the new release by Mark Haddon The Red House (2012) where estranged siblings and their families come together for one week in an English country house.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #341 "A sister is a gift to the heart..."

3 debut novels - from the wilds of British Columbia to the idyllic Swedish countryside, from WWII Paris to contemporary Williamsburg, Brooklyn, - the stories of sisters.

In Frances Greenslade's Shelter *, living almost off-the-grid with their hippie parents in the Pacific mountains, Maggie and Jenny experience their first blow when their father is killed in a logging accidents. Then their mother disappears, leaving them with almost strangers. It is up to them to build the shelter, both physical and emotional— to sustain themselves as they move into adulthood.

"Heartbreaking and lushly imagined,Shelter celebrates the love between two sisters and the complicated bonds of family. It is an exquisitely written ode to sisters, mothers, daughters, and to a woman's responsibility to herself and those she loves."

I am Forbidden * brings to life four generations of one Satmar family. 1944 Transylvania, little Mila was rescued from certain death and raised with Atara, the daughter of Zalman Stern, a leader in the Satmar community. As the two girls mature, Mila's faith intensifies, while her beloved Atara discovers a world of books and learning that she cannot ignore, and continues to question fundamentalist doctrine. The different choices the two sisters make force them apart until a dangerous secret threatens to banish them from the only community they've ever known.

"A beautifully crafted, emotionally gripping story of what happens when unwavering love, unyielding law, and centuries of tradition collide". Anouk Markovits was raised in France in a Satmar home, breaking from the fold when she was nineteen to avoid an arranged marriage. She went on to receive a Bachelor of Science from Columbia University, a Master of Architecture from Harvard, and a PhD in Romance Studies from Cornell. I Am Forbidden is her English-language debut.

Drowned *, set in the idyllic countryside during a short-lived Swedish summer, Marina, a burnt-out college student visits her older sister Stella who is living with Gabriel, a famous writer as charismatic as he is violent. As Marian gradually comes under Gabriel's spell, she also senses unease in Stella and the many secrets she keeps. With recurrent references to Ophelia, savvy readers could already anticipate the plot that mixes "hothouse sensuality with ice-cold fear". A compelling psychological thriller not to be missed.

Debut novelist Therese Bohman is a magazine editor and a columnist writing about literature, art, culture, and fashion. She lives in Sweden. Translator Marlaine Delargy serves on the editorial board of the Swedish Book Review. She lives in England.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #340 - Accidental Sleuths

Tessa Harris' The Anatomist's Apprentice (in audio) opens in 1780 London with the death of 19 year-old Sir Edward Crick, a dissolute young man mourned only by his sister Lady Lydia Farrell. Dr. Thomas Silkstone, a young anatomist from Philadelphia, known for his forensic skills and unconventional methods, is asked to investigate when Lydia's husband Capt. Michael Farrell comes under suspicion.

(Debut novelist) "Harris has more than a few tricks up her sleeve, and even veteran armchair puzzle solvers are likely to be surprised".

In the aftermath of the Great War and a devastating family tragedy, Laurence Bartram lives a solitary life in a London attic, devoting all his time and effort to the writing of an architectural history of English churches. When Mary Emmett writes to ask him to look into the suspicious death of his friend John while in the care of a remote veterans' hospital, his investigation forces him to face his own demons, and draws him back into the world of the living.

"At once a compelling mystery and an elegant literary debut, British historian Elizabeth Speller blends the psychological depth of Pat Barker's Regeneration trilogy with lively storytelling from the golden age of British crime fiction", in the first of a projected series with The Return of Captain John Emmett (2011). Just released is the follow-up, entitled The Strange Fate of Kitty Easton in which Bartram arrives in the village of Easton Deadall and is embroiled in a dangerous case involving a murdered woman who may be linked to the disappearance of a child years earlier.

Both of these debut mysteries/series will appeal to fans of the Inspector Ian Rutledge series (in audio) by Charles Todd (Charles Todd is the joint pseudonym for the mother-and-son writing team of Charles Todd and Caroline Todd, pseudonyms of David Todd Watjen and Caroline L.T. Watjen); the John Madden series by Rennie Airth; the Nell Bray Series by Gillian Linscott; and the Maisie Dobbs series by Jacqueline Winspear.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #338

If I had to pick a favorite this publishing season, it would have to be debut author Francesca Segal's The Innocents * *, a captivating recast of Edith Wharton's The Age of Innocence, set this time in Temple Fortune, a swanky, and close-knit Jewish enclave in North West London.

28 year-old Adam Newman considers himself very lucky - newly engaged to sweet Rachel Gilbert with her traditional values, embraced by her loving family, and assured as heir-apparent in her father's prestigious law firm. Turning his world upside down is Rachel's younger cousin Ellie who arrives from New York discredited (Columbia University), disgraced (for the less than above-board arrangements with a married man), and scandalized (for her starring role in an "art house" film).

Adam does try to keep clear of Ellie but their mutual attraction and Ellie's fiercely independent thinking and reckless behavior keep drawing them together. "While the basic plot will not surprise Wharton readers, this new version of a classic is appealingly fresh and brisk, taking on issues of love, community, and compromise as unforeseen events alter the courses of lives", coming most appropriately on the 150th anniversary of the birth of Edith Wharton.

Francesca Segal "writes elegantly and thoughtfully about Adam's growing sense of entrapment... (and) ties in family Holocaust lore and high-holiday gatherings to show that those long-standing bonds are tough to break. Even if the plot and themes are second-hand, this is an emotionally and intellectually astute debut." Francesca was born in London and studied at Oxford and Harvard University before becoming a journalist and critic. Her work has appeared in Granta, The Guardian, and The Observer. She is daughter of author Erich Segal.

Flying lower on the media radar is another Edith Wharton recast this summer - Gilded Age: A Novel by another debut novelist Claire McMillan, inspired by The House of Mirth, and set in contemporary Cleveland. A little darker and more demanding, but engaging just the same. Former English majors should feast on them.

* * =Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #337

For the adrenaline junkies, here's one for you. Matthew Quirk, DC reporter for The Atlantic, no stranger to crimes and the seedier side of politics and corruption, brings to you a gripping debut thriller.

Mike Ford (Harvard Law) lands a dream job at the Davies Group, Washington's most powerful consulting firm, thus rubbing shoulders daily with "The 500 * " , the elite men and women who really run Washington -- and the world. Thinking that he has put enough distance from the small-time con man father and his blue-collar roots, he is unprepared for the demands of his new job - to cheat, steal, and this time, maybe even kill, as he finds himself staring down the barrel of a gun, pursued by two of the world's most dangerous men, one of them a trained killer, and the other, closest to his heart.

"Combining the best elements of political intrigue and heart-stopping action" this debut calls to mind classic thrillers by John Grisham, David Baldacci and Brad Meltzer. Film rights sold to 20th Century Fox.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #336

This memorable debut collection Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain: stories * * * by award-winning (MacArthur Fellow, and Pulitzer Prize finalist) poet Lucia Perillo (author website) is not be missed.

Critics and reviewers are calling it "bleakly funny and harrowing", "unpredictable, relentlessly frank and incisive with stunning imagery", Perillo's denizen from a small town in the Pacific Northwest will earn your admiration, if not your respect. Bonnie Jo Campbell remarked that while these "working-class mothers, daughters, and sisters, who don't bitch or ask for sympathy from anyone... they may work shitty jobs, fool around with men they don't love, and sport unfortunate tattoos, but they triumph by inhabiting their bodies fully".

Among them, you will have your favorites - whether it is the self-medicated housewife, stranded and marginalized, who finds solace in state-of-the art vacuum cleaners and their door-to-door salesmen (in "Doctor Vicks"); or Jill, the sweater-and-pearls variety who recounts tales of armed robbery (in "Report from the Trenches"); or Louisa, a 30 year-old with Down syndrome who serves as an accomplice to her younger sister's sexual exploits (in "Bad Boy Number Seventeen") and her aging mother's fantasies of revenge. The one thread that runs through them might well be the way they heroically, though not always wisely, "wanting to flaunt the way all the rest of us think that we're stuck with the cards that we've been dealt".

"Emotionally unflinching stories of considerable power, wonder and humor", like their protagonists, they will move you and steal your heart. For readers who enjoy the short stories of Alice Munro, William Trevor, and Thomas Lynch.

* * * = starred reviews

Syndicate content