Fabulous Fiction Firsts #489 -“Perhaps it's impossible to wear an identity without becoming what you pretend to be.”~ Orson Scott Card, Ender's Game

In The Distance, a "dark, ultra-contemporary and relentlessly paced debut thriller by Helen Giltrow, a London socialite, desperate to put some distance from her criminal past must contend with the outrageous demand of a hit man.

Behind the closed door of her sleek, high-security London apartment, Charlotte Alton is Karla - who, with a few keystrokes and for the right price, could make anyone disappear. The only mistake she'd ever made in an otherwise perfect career is revealing her face to a man named Simon Johanssen, an ex-special forces sniper turned killer-for-hire. Now, after a long absence, Johanssen has resurfaced with a job, and he needs Karla's help. This time - to take out an inmate inside an experimental prison colony, against impossible odds.

"Written in stylish, sophisticated prose, The Distance is a tense and satisfying debut in which every character, both criminal and law-abiding, wears two faces, and everyone is playing a double game."

"The graphic violence and torture has this thriller bordering on horror, like the work of Chelsea Cain, so be forewarned that it is not for the squeamish."

Gangsterland * * * by Tod Goldberg. Like Karla, Sal Cupertine, legendary hit man for the Chicago Mafia, has only made one mistake in his line of work, but it is a big one - killing 3 undercover FBI agents in a botched sting operation. To stay alive, he agrees to "the family's" radical idea. After a few surgeries and some intensive studying, Rabbi David Cohen is born, spouting quotes from the Torah or the Old Testament, leading a growing congregation in Las Vegas, and overseeing the temple and the new cemetery - a convenience both as a money and body-laundering scheme for the Mob. Meanwhile, a rouge FBI agent is on his trail, seeking vengeance for the murder of his three fellow agents.

"(W)ickedly dark and funny, Gangsterland (is) a morality tale set in a desert landscape as ruthless and barren as those who inhabit it."

"Sal's transformation and intermittent edification into Rabbi Cohen is brilliantly rendered, and Goldberg's careening plot, cast of memorably dubious characters, and mordant portrait of Las Vegas make this one of the year's best hard-boiled crime novels."

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #488 - “I was made and meant to look for you and wait for you and become yours forever.” ~ Robert Browning

I am so pleased to have discovered The Awakening of Miss Prim * by Natalia Sanmartin Fenollera, a charming and intelligent debut novel that is already a bestseller in Europe.

An ad for the post of a librarian for a private collection brings Prudencia Prim to the remote French village of San Ireneo de Arnois. Intelligence, highly accomplished and self-assured, she accepts the job (we will find out the reasons soon enough) though she finds the situation highly peculiar. Her employer "the man in the wingchair", a book-loving intellectual, is dashing yet "stubborn, domineering, and arrogant" (his own words), always ready with a critique of her cherished Jane Austen and Louisa May Alcott. What disturbs Prudencia most is the flock of children that "the man in the wingchair" is determined to home-school with a most unconventional curriculum.

As Prudencia settles into her routine and gets acquainted with the neighbors and the villagers, she finds them capable of charm and eccentricity in equal measure, determined as they are to preserve their singular little community from the modern world outside. Her hope for friendship might indeed open her heart for much more. "Set against a backdrop of steaming cups of tea, freshly baked cakes, and lovely company, The Awakening of Miss Prim is a distinctive and delightfully entertaining tale of literature, philosophy, and the search for happiness."

In a recent interview with the Madrid-based investigative-journalist-turned-author, she disclosed that the Village of San Irenoe de Arnois is an imaginary place, inspired by the European tradition; where small communities were often built near abbeys; where people’s lives have a human scale; and where tradition and culture are regarded as treasures - a welcome respite and curiosity in "a world that’s so fast and so noisy." Sorry, folks. Hope you haven't packed your bags already.

For Pym and Von Arnim readers, this is an author to watch.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #487 - “There are two ways of seeing: with the body and with the soul. The body's sight can sometimes forget, but the soul remembers forever.” ~ Alexandre Dumas

In What is Visible *, debut novelist Kimberly Elkins presents a "wonderfully imaginative and scrupulously researched" fictional memoir of the life and challenges of Laura Bridgman, the first deaf and blind woman to learn language, some fifty years before Helen Keller. Though she was an internationally renowned figure in the mid-19th century, Laura has been all but forgotten by history.

At age 2, Laura lost her sight, hearing, and the ability to taste and smell from scarlet fever. At age 7, she was taken from her family home in Hanover, New Hampshire by Dr. Samuel Howe, founder of the Perkins Institute in Boston, and taught to communicate via hand spelling. Laura soon became celebrated figure attracting hundreds to exhibitions at the Institution, including a visit by Charles Dickens and Dorothea Dix. But Laura suffered greatly when Dr. Howe married and began a family of his own.

"Told in alternating chapters by Laura, Howe, his poet wife Julia, and Laura's beloved teacher Sarah Wight, this is a complex, multilayered portrait of a woman who longed to communicate and to love and be loved. Elkins fully captures her difficult nature and her relentless pursuit of connection."

Blind * * *, a YA debut by Ann Arbor native (Community High) and Alex Award winner (Big Girl Small) Rachel DeWoskin is "one of those rare books that utterly absorbs the reader into the life and experience of another."

When 14 yr. old Emma Sasha Silver loses her eyesight in a freak accident, she must relearn everything from walking across the street to learning to decipher braille. After a year at the Briarly School for the Blind, she is finally able to return home. But just as she is able to start high school and try to recover her friendships and former life, one of her classmates is found dead in an apparent suicide.

"DeWoskin...skillfully balances the pain of loss with the promise of new experiences and discovery.... The life of a formerly sighted teen blossoms in Emma's strong voice as she explores the world, conquers fears, and attempts living everyday life again with her large, bustling, Jewish suburban family. A gracefully written, memorable, and enlightening novel. "

”A vivid, sensory tour of the shifting landscapes of blindness and teen relationships."

* = starred review
* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #486 - “No one knows for certain how much impact they have on the lives of other people. Oftentimes, we have no clue." ~ Jay Asher, Thirteen Reasons Why

Already a bestseller in Europe and its native Sweden, A Man Called Ove * * by Fredrik Backman is just now getting the well-deserved buzz in the U.S.

Meet Ove. He is a less likable version of Major Pettigrew and Harold Fry, a man of staunch principles, strict routines, a short fuse, and has absolutely no use for people.

At 59, Ove has just been made redundant. His wife Sonia has dies four years ago ,"taking with her all the color in a world Ove sees as black-and-white". So Ove decides to take matters into his own hands. Various attempts to "off" himself end in hilarious (and fortunate) mishaps, and timely interference, divine and otherwise. Even strangers conspire to derail his plan, like the man who falls on the train track just as Ove is able to jump.

Each time he makes a fresh attempt to kill himself, Ove finds himself imposed upon - his oldest friend and most feared enemy, Rune is about to be forcibly removed to a nursing home, while Rune's wife Anita is frantic about a plumbing issue (Ove could fix just about anything). The new neighbors - "the foreign pregnant woman" with her young daughters seem to need help all the time. Sundry homeless pets and young men ask to be taken in. And there is the daily inspection of the housing estate for rule-breakers, never mind he has been voted out of office by the Residents' Association long ago.

"Backman does a crafty job revealing the full vein of precious metal beneath Ove’s ribs, glint by glint. Ove’s history trickles out in alternating chapters—a bleak set of circumstances that smacks an honorable, hardworking boy around time and again, proving that, even by early adulthood, he comes by his grumpy nature honestly... What the book takes its time revealing is that this dyed-in-the-wool curmudgeon has a heart of solid gold."

"If there was an award for Most Charming Book of the Year, this first novel by a Swedish blogger-turned-overnight-sensation would win hands down."

Readers might also enjoy Noah's Compass by Anne Tyler; An Unfinished Life by Mark Spragg; and The Widower's Tale by Julia Glass.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #485 - “...weddings are giant Rorschach tests onto which everyone around you projects their fears, fantasies, and expectations -- many of which they've been cultivating since the day you were born.” ~ Susan Jane Gilman

Come, indulge with me...

Cancel the Wedding by debut author Carolyn Dingman

On the surface, Olivia has it all: a high-powered career, a loving family, and a handsome fiance. She even seems to be coming to terms with her mother Jane's premature death from cancer. Though Olivia and her elder sister Georgia are mystified with their mother's final wish, it offers Olivia a temporary reprieve from decision about her dream job that she now hates, and her upcoming wedding she is having second thoughts about. With her 14-year-old niece, Logan, riding shotgun, she heads to Tillman, GA, on a summer road trip looking for answers about her mother, and comes to know a great deal more about herself. Readers who sympathize with Oliva's difficult situation would enjoy You Are the Love of My Life by Susan Richards Shreve.

A Wedding in Provence by Ellen Sussman - a feast for the senses, and a moving novel of love, forgiveness, and trust, set among the beaches and vineyards of southern France.

Olivia and Brody have found the perfect spot for their small wedding - an idyllic inn nestled in a valley in the Mediterranean town of Cassis, if only they can count on their families and guests to behave. Impulsive and reckless Nell, Olivia's oldest daughter from her first marriage invites a complete stranger. Olivia's youngest daughter, Carly, generally responsible and pragmatic decides to let her hair down for a change. Jake, Brody's playboy best man, and Fanny, Brody's mother arrive with toxic emotional baggage.

A delicious, compelling, and utterly enchanting novel, that captures the complex and enduring bonds of family, and our boundless faith in love. "Women's fiction fans will enjoy Sussman's knowing exploration of mother/daughter relationships and the bond between sisters. The vivid description of Provence will whisk the reader away to the Mediterranean tout suite." A great readalike for Seating Arrangements by Maggie Shipstead.

The Beekeeper's Ball * by Susan Wiggs is the second in the "Bella Vista Chronicles" after The Apple Orchard (2013). Set in the lush Sonoma Valley wine country, the narrative now centers on Isabel Johansen who is in the process of transforming her childhood home into a destination cooking school, and planning the wedding festivities for her sister Tess (the protagonist in the first title in the Chronicles).

When a intrepid (and very cocky) journalist/biographer Cormac "Mac" O'Neill is mistaken for a beekeeper and is almost killed by Isabel's bees, the relationship between them gets off on a rocky start. But Mac's project of writing her grandfather's biography, including his role in the Danish Resistance during WWII, forces them to work together. As much as Isabel denies it, she's getting more and more attracted to Mac.

"Wiggs' carefully detailed plotlines, one contemporary and one historical, with their candid look at relationships and their long-term effects, are sure to captivate readers." Recipes included.

"What makes this moving narrative so memorable is the fearlessness of families and friends who find strength in each other through the horrors of war and loss." If you enjoyed Jojo Moyes' The Girl You Left Behind, you won't be disappointed.

Here are some of my personal favorites (in no particular order) on the drama that often threatens to undo even the best-laid wedding plans: Beautiful Day by Elin Hilderbrand; A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve; The Wedding Girl by Madeleine Wickham; and Philosophy Made Simple by Robert Hellenga.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #484 -“Sometimes we want what we want even if we know it’s going to kill us.” ~ Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch

Rainey Royal by Dylan Landis

In these 14 linked stories (one of which won a 2014 O. Henry Prize), 14 yr.old Rainey Royal lives with her famous jazz musician father in a once-elegant Brownstone in Greenwich Village after her mother ran away to an ashram. Surrounded by her father's groupies and hangers-on, predators disguised as her father's best friend, she is lonely and vulnerable. Thankfully, there is her best friend Tina. As she tries desperately to nurture her own artistic talent and build a substitute family, she rebels in unconventional, sometimes criminal ways.

"Landis' captivating first novel is a ringing tribute to friendship, autonomy, and artistic presence." She "offers a rich, sometimes challenging portrait of young women doing their best to grow in the absence of positive role models."

From National Book Foundation "5 Under 35" honoree (see the video interviews) and Rona Jaffe Award-winner comes an urgent, intensely visceral debut novel about a young waitress whose downward spiral is narrated in electric prose - Love Me Back.

Merritt Tierce follows Marie, a single mother who gives in to brutally self-destructive tendencies with alcohol, drugs, self-cutting and one-night stands, looking for obliteration if not pleasure. The one thing that brings her life focus is her job as a waitress in an upscale Dallas steakhouse which she tackles with an easy smile and strong work ethic. "You keep your standards high and your work strong but these are necessary for success; you keep your dignity separate, somewhere else, attached to different things."

"(A) flawed thing of beauty, as terribly uncomfortable to read as it is often brilliant,...Tierce's first novel is unsentimental and unresolved but ultimately laced with an undercurrent of hope."

If you have never read indie author K.A. Tucker, praised for her "likeable characters, steamy liaisons, and surprising plot twists" (Kirkus Reviews), you might really enjoy Five Ways to Fall.

Purple-haired, sharp-tongued Reese MacKay knows all about making wrong choices; she's made plenty of them in her twenty-odd-years. So when her violent "redecorating" of her two-timing ex-husband's apartment lands her in jail, she decides to accept the only life-line thrown to her and moves to Miami to work for her stepfather, a renowned attorney.

Things are going well. Reese even finds she enjoys legal work and is good at it... until an embarrassing last-fling on a tequila-soaked weekend in Cancun walks into the office, and introduces himself as Ben Morris, the firm's new ace attorney. Now if Reese and Ben are truly smart, they would have stay clear of each other. But that won't make for a good story.

"A fun, flirty, super sexy love story that offers all of the best of opposites attracting".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #483 - The Ann Arbor Connection

Ann Arbor author Julie Lawson Timmer's debut novel Five Days Left * * is part of the Penguin First Flights program. If you missed her live chat on Sept. 10th, click on this link for an archived edition.

Wife, mother, and top-notch Texas lawyer, Mara Nichols is losing her battle with a rapidly-progressing case of Huntington's disease. She has set a date to end her life to cut short a decline she believes will destroy her family. Now she has five days left in which to prepare herself, tidy her affairs, and say goodbye to her loved ones. While in Royal Oak (MI) middle-school teacher Scott Coffman dreads having to part with his foster son, eight-year-old Curtis. In five days, he will have to relinquish Curtis back to his junkie mother when she is release from prison. Mara and Scoot meet anonymously in an online therapy forum, and through their daily posts, Timmer deftly compares their shared dilemmas of when and how to let go.

"Absorbing, deeply affecting, and ultimately uplifting, it heralds the arrival of an author to watch." Perfect for fans of thoughtful, issue-driven fiction of Carol Rifka Brunt; Jacquelyn Mitchard; and Jodi Picoult.

The Ice Cream Queen of Orchard Street * by Susan Jane Gilman (UM, MFA in Creative Writing, and author of several well-received nonfiction titles) is "an ambitious and lavish immigrant rags-to-riches-to-rags first novel rife with humor and moxie."

At 75, American businesswoman Lillian Dunkle (think Leona Helmsley) is facing federal tax evasion charges, and no one is shedding any tears. This abrasive and ruthless entrepreneur started life as Malka Treynovsky, the youngest of 4 daughters in a poor Russian Jewish immigrant family. Soon after their arrival in New York, she was quickly abandoned and taken in by a kindly Italian ices peddler, and renamed Lillian Maria Dinello. Through grit, wits, and some luck, she, along with her husband Albert Dunkle, built the successful Dunkle's Famous Ice Cream empire.

"Gilman's numerous strengths are showcased, such as character-driven narrative, a ready sense of wit, and a rich historical canvas, in this case based on the unlikely subject of the 20th-century American ice cream industry. "

Readalikes: Belle Cora by Phillip Margulies; My Notorious Life by Kate Manning; and The Shoemaker's Wife by Adriana Trigiani.

* * = 2 starred reviews
* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #482

Winner of the 2010 Oe Prize, Japan's prestigious literary award, established to honor Kenzaburō Ōe; and a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize - The Thief is the first novel by Fuminori Nakamura (in audio format) to be translated into English.

The nameless titular character is a deft Tokyo pickpocket, a loner who moves anonymously at the fringe of society. Through his mentor, he was drafted into an armed robbery by Kizaki, a vicious gangster. A simple job turned deadly when he learned that the old man they robbed was a prominent politician, and that he was brutally killed after the robbery. Meanwhile, his last tenuous connection to society is a desperate young boy forced into clumsy shoplifting by his addicted, prostitute mother. With nowhere left to run, the thief must barter his life with a labyrinthine test of his thieving prowess.

"Mystery/crime aficionados with exacting literary standards, as well as fans of Miyuki Miyabe; Natsuo Kirino; and Keigo Higashino" will find much to like here.

Watch for the October release of Nakamura's next novel to reach these shores - Last Winter We Parted is a "creepy if elegantly-crafted" standalone. The narrator, a nameless writer, gets assigned to pen an exposé of Yudai Kiharazaka, a 35-year-old Tokyo art photographer awaiting execution for burning two models to death.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #481 “Now I know what a ghost is. Unfinished business, that's what.” ~ Salman Rushdie

If the cover jacket of Horrorstor by Grady Hendrix reminds you of retail catalogs for a particular furniture superstore with a maize-and-blue logo, it is intentional. No, I am not talking about that other BIG HOUSE.

Something strange is happening at the Orsk furniture superstore in Cleveland, Ohio. Every morning, employees arrive to find the showrooms vandalized, furniture smashed and glassware broken. To put an end to the mystery, the snarky store manager assigns Amy and Ruth Ann to stay overnight in the store to catch the culprit, while Matt and Trinity on their own, are filming a reality show, hoping to find evidence of ghost-haunting. Together, they find more than they bargained for in this fun horror novel.

Longtime pop-culture journalist Grady Hendrix (website) infuses sly social commentary on the nature of work in the 21st century economy to a traditional haunted house story, complete with illustrations of ready-to-assemble furniture and other more sinister accessories. "Nifty" is what a reviewer called it, and sure to entertain.

Rooms by Lauren Oliver, bestselling Teen author makes her adult debut with a mesmerizing story in the tradition of The Lovely Bones; Her Fearful Symmetry; and The Ocean at the End of the Lane - ”a tale of family, ghosts, secrets, and mystery, in which the lives of the living and the dead intersect in shocking, surprising, and moving ways."

Wealthy Richard Walker has just died. His estranged bitter ex-wife Caroline, troubled teenage son Trenton, and unforgiving daughter Minna return for their inheritance. Joining them are Alice and Sandra, ghosts of former residents bound to this country house. The living and dead are each haunted by painful truths. When a new ghost appears, the spirit and human worlds collide, with cataclysmic results.

Elegantly constructed and brilliantly paced, "Oliver's ear for dialogue is finely tuned. She's able to take the tropes of the traditional ghost story and give them new energy by creating ghosts who are realistic but still terrifyingly paranormal".

A page-turner, and one of this fall's buzz titles.

The Hundred-Year House * * * by Rebecca Makkai.

Located just north of Chicago, Laurelfield, designed in the English country style at the turn of the century for the Devohrs of Toronto, is home to Gracie Devohrs and her new husband Bruce. Sharing the antiquated carriage house are her daughter Zee, a Marxist literary scholar, Doug her out-of-work academic husband, Bruce's down-on-his-luck Texan son Case and his artist wife Miriam.

When Doug finds out Laurelfield served as an artists' and writers' colony in the 1920s, and Edwind Parfitt, the subject of his stalled biography (nevermind that it might be the only hope of a future academic position) had been a resident at the Colony, he is desperate to gain access to the colony records, rotting away in the attic for decades, records that Gracie guards with a strange ferocity. But what he discovers when he finally gets his hands on them is more than he bargains for. The secrets of the hundred-year house would turn everything Doug and Zee think they know about her family on its head.

"In this brilliantly conceived, ambitious, and deeply rewarding novel, Rebecca Makkai unfolds a generational saga in reverse, leading the reader back in time on a literary scavenger hunt as we seek to uncover the truth about these strange people and this mysterious house. With intelligence and humor, a daring narrative approach, and a lovingly satirical voice, Rebecca Makkai has crafted an unforgettable novel about family, fate and the incredible surprises life can offer."

"Its gothic elements, complexity, and plot twists are reminiscent of Margaret Atwood's The Blind Assassin. Chilling and thoroughly enjoyable."

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #480

The Frozen Dead * * by Bernard Minier is the U.S. release of an international best-seller set in the French Pyrenees. Saint-Martin-de-Comminges is a remote small town, reached only by cable car, where winters are harsh and the wind relentless. On a brisk snowy morning, workers arriving for seasonal service of the hydroelectric power station discover a horrific scene - a headless, flayed body of a horse is suspended from the edge of a frozen cliff.

The charismatic, Latin-quoting Commandant Martin Servaz of nearby Toulouse is called on to investigate this priority case since the Thoroughbred belongs to non-other than Eric Lombard, CEO of a multinational company and member of a very influential family with strong political ties to the area.

Just a few miles away on that same day, Diane Berg a young psychiatrist from Geneva starts her first job at the Wargnier Institute, a high-security asylum for the criminally insane. Uneasy with the unorthodox methods used on the patients/prisoners and some alarming behavior among the staff, Dr. Berg teams up with Commandant Servaz when DNA from one of the most notorious inmates (think Hannibal Lecter) of the asylum is found on the horse carcass.

"Complex, fast-paced, and completely absorbing. "

"The pervasiveness of evil in this tense and disturbing novel makes for very compelling reading, with the suspense bordering on horror. It should appeal to those who enjoyed Pierre Lemaitre's Alex (2013) as well as the edgier Scandinavian thrillers."

* * = starred review

Syndicate content