Fabulous Fiction Firsts #398

If you were bewitched by The Night Circus, mesmerized by A Discovery of Witches, and enthralled by Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, then you would not want to miss Helene Wecker's debut The Golem and the Jinni, a wondrously inventive and unforgettable tale drawn from Yiddish and Middle Eastern literature and mythology.

Chava, a golem is a creature made of clay, brought to life by a disgraced rabbi as a commission for an unpleasant furniture maker wanting a wife. Ahmad is a jinni, a being of fire born in the ancient Syrian desert, trapped in an old copper flask by a Bedouin wizard centuries ago. A chance meeting on the streets of turn-of-the-century New York brings an unlikely friendship for these mythical creatures.

As Chava, unmoored and adrift her owner having died at sea, arrives in New York harbor, Ahmad is released accidentally by a tinsmith in a Lower Manhattan shop. Forming an unexpected friendship, Chava and Ahmed must learn how to survive undetected among the immigrant communities, cope with their individual challenges and desires, while preparing to battle a dangerous adversary.

"Wecker...writes skillfully, nicely evoking the layers of alienness that fall upon strangers in a strange land".

"Wecker deftly layers their story over those of the people they encounter, from the coffeehouse owner Maryam Faddoul, a pillar of wisdom and support for her Syrian neighbors; the solitary ice cream maker Saleh, a damaged man cursed by tragedy; the kind and caring Rabbi Meyer and his beleaguered nephew, Michael, whose Sheltering House receives newly arrived Jewish men; the adventurous young socialite Sophia Winston; and the enigmatic Joseph Schall, a dangerous man driven by ferocious ambition and esoteric wisdom".

" (a) spellbinding blend of fantasy and historical fiction".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #397

For over a decade, US publishers have been looking for English language books that deal with Chechnya, a volatile and bloody Russian Republic consistently in the news. They were thrilled when Whiting Award & Pushcart Prize winner Anthony Marra, (Stegner Fellow, Iowa Writers' Workshop) submitted his novel A Constellation of Vital Phenomena *.

In the final days of December 2004, in a small rural village in Chechnya, eight-year-old Havaa hides in the woods when her father is abducted by Russian forces. Fearing for her life, she flees with their neighbor Akhmed, a failed physician, to the bombed-out hospital where Sonja, the only remaining doctor treats the wounded rebels and refugees. Over the course of five dramatic days, Akhmed and Sonja reach back into their pasts to unravel the intricate mystery of coincidence, betrayal, and forgiveness that unexpectedly binds them and decides their fate,

"Marra collapses time, sliding between 1996 and 2004 while also detailing events in a future yet to arrive, giving his searing novel an eerie, prophetic aura. All of the characters are closely tied together in ways that Marra takes his time revealing, even as he beautifully renders the way we long to connect and the lengths we will go to endure".

"...simply spectacular. Not since Everything Is Illuminated have I read a first novel so ambitious and fully realized". ~ Ann Patchett

"Remarkable and breathtaking,... a spellbinding elegy for an overlooked land engulfed by an oft-forgotten war. Set in the all-too-real Chechen conflict, Marra conjures fragile and heartfelt characters whose fates interrogate the very underpinnings of love and sacrifice.” ~ Adam Johnson

For readers who enjoyed The Tiger's Wife; Cutting for Stone; and City of Thieves.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #396 - The Revolutionaries

Amy Brill, a PBS and MTV writer/producer and a former fellow of the Edward F. Albee Foundation, and the Millay Colony, has just published her first novel.

The Movement of Stars * is a love story set in 1845 Nantucket, between a female astronomer and the unusual man who understands her dreams. This richly drawn portrait of desire and ambition in the face of adversity is inspired by the work of Maria Mitchell (1818-1889), the first professional female astronomer in America who discovered C/1847 T1.

24 year-old Hannah Gardner Price spends her days as a junior librarian in the Nantucket Atheneum, and mindful of the restraints and discipline of the Quaker community in which she is raised. But up on the rooftop each night, Hannah points a telescope at the heavens, hoping to spot a new comet to win the King of Denmark's prize, unheard of for a woman in mid-19th century.

And then she meets Isaac Martin, a young, dark-skinned whaler from the Azores who, like herself, has ambitions beyond his expected station in life. Drawn to his intellectual curiosity and honest manner, Hannah agrees to take Isaac on as a student. but when their shared interest in the stars develops into something deeper, Hannah's standing in the community begins to unravel especially amidst the widespread abolitionist sentiments, thus challenges her most fundamental beliefs about work and love, and ultimately changes the course of her life.

"In spare yet luminous prose, Brill shows Hannah achieving emotional and spiritual growth to match her intellectual gifts... Probing yet accessible, beautifully written and richly characterized: fine work from a writer to watch:".

Readers interested in exploring emotional and professional journey of strong women would enjoy Susan Vreeland's Clara and Mr. Tiffany (2011); Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures (2010); while romantic historical fiction fans would find much to like in Cathy Marie Buchanan's The Day the Falls Stood Still (2009).

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #395 - The Reconstructionists 2

Holly Goddard Jones's debut novel The Next Time You See Me * revisits the same terrain as in her Girl Trouble (2009), a collection of eight "beautifully written, achingly poignant, and occasionally heartbreaking stories" set in a small Kentucky town.

When middle-school teacher Susanna could not reach her hard-drinking, unpredictable older sister Ronnie, and the rotten take-out food cartons and other alarming signs in her apartment fail to convince the local police to treat it as a missing person's case, she has to turn to Tony, a failed athlete returning to his home town as a detective.

Socially awkward 13 year-old Emily, an easy target for 7th grade bullies, takes refuge in a stretch of deserted woods and stumbles onto a gruesome scene she decides to keep to herself.

Downtrodden Wyatt, is a factory worker tormented by a past he can't change and by a love he doesn't think he deserves. Connected in ways they cannot begin to imagine, their stories converge in a violent climax that reveals not just the mystery of what happened to Ronnie but all of their secret selves.

"Jones' well-crafted tale captures small-town nuances while exploring the individual psychologies of her characters and their struggles".

"In the vein of Gone Girl,...Jones' tightly written Southern thriller will be one of spring's sizzling titles. Jones brilliantly weaves together story lines from unexpected angles. Her writing is fluid and she keeps a pace that will have readers lacing on their running shoes. And what a suspenseful, emotional, addictive run it is! "

Enough said. A must-read this spring.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #394 - The Reconstructionists

One of the most common causes of accidental death in America (right behind motor vehicle crashes) is falls (almost 15,000/year). There is grief but sometimes searching for the why and the how are all the more consuming for those left behind.

In Kimberly McCreight's debut Reconstructing Amelia (earning a "Grade A" from Entertainment Weekly), suspended for cheating at Grace Hall, a prestigious private school in Park Slope, Brooklyn, Kate Baron's daughter Amelia has apparently leapt from the roof by the time Kate arrives to pick her up. Then Kate gets an anonymous text message saying, "Amelia didn't jump".

A single mother juggling a demanding legal career, Kate is rocked with guilt and refuses to reconcile the out-of-character accusations leveled at the over-achieving, well-behaved Amelia. She searches through Amelia's e-mails, texts, and Facebook updates, piecing together the last troubled days of her daughter's life.

"This stunning...page-turner brilliantly explores the secret world of teenagers, their clandestine first loves, hidden friendships, and the dangerous cruelty that can spill over into acts of terrible betrayal". A great YA crossover, and readalike for Mathilda Savitch by Victor Lodato.

This one, I liked a lot - Swimming at Night by Lucy Clarke.

"People go traveling for two reasons: because they are searching for something, or they are running from something". Katie's world is shattered by the news that her headstrong and bohemian younger sister, Mia, has been found dead at the bottom of a cliff in Bali, apparently a suicide, while on an impromptu around-the-world trip. With only the entries in Mia's travel journal as her guide, Katie leaves her sheltered life in London to retrace the last few months of her sister's life, and to uncover the mystery surrounding her death.

"Weaving together the exotic settings and suspenseful twists, Swimming at Night is a fast-paced, accomplished, and gripping debut novel of secrets, loss, and forgiveness".

"A great read for fans of smart contemporary women's fiction as well as thriller and mystery readers". Comparisons are inevitable with Rosamund Lupton's Sister.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #393

Named Book of the Year 2011 by The Economist, The Afrika Reich * is "remarkable for the plot that is clever, imaginative ... wholly unexpected. In a crowded field, (it) stands out as a rich and unusual thriller, politically sophisticated and hard to forget ".

Debut novelist Guy Saville (blog) will hold you in suspense as he spins a tale of an alternate world where a victorious Nazi Germany sets its sight on Africa.

After the "Dunkirk Fiasco", a humiliated Britain under Prime Minister Lord Halifax, signed a non-agression pact with Hilter for peace in Europe and to bring her POWs home. 1952, Africa. The swastika flies from the Sahara to the Indian Ocean. The SS enslaves the native populations and threatens the ailing British colonies. At the helm reigns the architect of Nazi Africa Germany - Walter Hochburg, the psychopathic governor-general of Kongo.

Burton Cole, a retired assassin is hired to eliminate Hochburg. He is motivated less so by the huge purse that would save his little farm, than by a personal score to settle. But when his mission turns to disaster, Cole realizes his small team of mercenaries has been betrayed, and they might not make it out alive.

"Saville gets everything right - providing suspenseful action sequences, logical but enthralling plot twists, a fully thought-through imaginary world, and characters with depth."

"A skin-of-the-teeth escape at the end foreshadows a series." Book 2 (2014) and Book 3 are sure things. The waiting is the tough part.

Fans of alternative history would also enjoy In War Times by Kathleen Ann Goonan (you would love this one if you are a jazz fan as well); The Plot Against America by Philip Roth; and Hitler's Peace by Philip Kerr.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #392

Debut novelist Jenny Milchman is definitely one to watch, if Cover of Snow * * (print format) is anything to go by.

Set in remote and insulated Wedeskyull, NY,, in the Adirondacks, Nora Hamilton wakes to find her world totally shattered with the suicide of her rock-solid husband Brendan. Leaving no note and giving no indication of his intent, Nora is at a loss. She needs answers but all she encounters is a bewildering resistance from Brendan's best friend and colleague, fellow police officers, and his brittle mother. For beneath the soft cover of snow lies layers of secrets and heart-breaking tragedies, which a powerful conspiracy will stop at nothing to keep buried.

"This is a richly woven story that not only looks at the devastating effects of suicide but also examines life in a small town and explores the complexity of marriage. Fans of Nancy Pickard, Margaret Maron, and C. J. Box will be delighted to find this new author." ~ Booklist

Listen-alike:

Sister by Rosamund Lupton.

No time for Goodbye by Linwood Barclay

Promise Not to Tell by Jennifer McMahon.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #391

If you are a fan of Alice Hoffman, Kaye Gibbons, and Sarah Addison Allen, you would want to get to know Rita Leganski. Set in the 1950s New Orleands, her debut novel The Silence of Bonaventure Arrow * is a magical story about the lost art of listening and a wondrous little boy who brings healing to all who love him.

Mute since birth, Bonaventure Arrow is born with the extraordinary gift of hearing. At five, he can hear flowers grow, a thousand shades of blue, and the miniature tempests that rage inside raindrops. He also hears the voice of his dead father, William Arrow, mysteriously murdered by a man known only as the Wanderer.

With the help of Trinidad Prefontaine, a Creole housekeeper endowed with her own special gifts, Bonaventure will find the key to long-buried mysteries and soothe a chorus of family secrets clamoring to be healed.

"A fine novel about love, loss, revenge and forgiveness that also touches on themes of race and class discrimination"

"Suffused with the mystical charm of New Orleans and the Louisiana bayou, Leganski's lyrical debut novel conjures dreams of voodoo, the power of healing, and the distinction between hearing and listening... Simply enchanting."

*= starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #390

Swedish TV screenwriter Alexander Söderberg's debut The Andalucian Friend ** is the first of a projected trilogy, an international suspense/thriller you won't want to miss.

Breaking her personal code never to date a patient, widowed nurse Sophie Brinkmann discovers that Hector Guzman, of quiet charm and easy smile, is in fact, the head of a powerful international crime organization. Regrettably, her previously uneventful and quiet life is but history, being drawn into Guzman's sinister world of drugs, arm dealing, turf wars, hit men and rogue cops. This single mother must summon everything within her to navigate this intricate web of moral ambiguity, deadly obsession, and craven gamesmanship.

Set largely in Stockholm, The Andalucian Friend is a powerhouse of a novel - ”turbo-charged, action-packed, highly sophisticated, and epic in scope". Little wonder that it was the smash hit of the 2011 Frankfurt Book Fair. Film rights sold to Indian Paintbrush Productions.

A strong resemblance to one of my favorite FFF- The Expats (2012) by Chris Pavone, and reminds me also of The Boy in the Suitcase by Danish author Lene Kaaberbol.

* * = starred reviews (Initial print run: 100K)

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #389

Child of Vengeance *, the debut novel by David Kirk is part military history, part family saga, part action/adventure, based on the real-life exploits of Japan's greatest samurai - the legendary Musashi Miyamoto.

17th-century Japan was a land in turmoil where lords of the great clans schemed against each other, served by samurai bound to them by a rigid code of honor. Abandoned at an early age by his samurai father, young Bennosuke is raised by his uncle Dorinbo, a Shinto monk in their ancestral village. Though urged by Dorinbo to renounce Bushido, the "Way of the Warrior", Bennosuke worships his absent father. When Munisai returns, gravely injured, Bennosuke is forced to confront truths about his family's history and his own place in it, leading eventually onto a path "awash with blood, bravery, and vengeance", and culminating in the epochal Battle of Sekigahara in which Bennosuke will first proclaim his name as Mushashi Miyamoto.

Legendary director Hiroshi Inagaki first captured the saga of Musashi Miyamoto on film in The Samurai Trilogy, adaptations of the novels by Eiji Yoshikawa. Readers might also enjoy samurai character-driven novels, especially the historical mystery series by Laura Joh Rowland which depicts the precarious fortunes of Lord Ichiro Sano.

British David Kirk first became interested in Japan when his father gave him a copy of James Clavell's Shōgun : a novel of Japan. He has written his dissertation on samurai cinema, and now lives and teaches English in Japan.

* = starred review

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