Fabulous Fiction Firsts #579 “Books are the quietest and most constant of friends; they are the most accessible and wisest of counselors, and the most patient of teachers.” ~ Charles William Eliot

An international bestseller The Readers of Broken Wheel Recommend * *, first novel by Katarina Bivald (translated from Swedish by Alice Menzies) is a sleepy charmer you would not be able to put down.

Broken Wheel, IA, pop. 637. Bookseller Sara Lindqvist travels from her native Sweden, against her parent's warning and her own inhibition, to visit Amy Harris, her longtime American pen pan, only to arrive on the day of Amy's funeral. Not having seen a tourist for years, the town folks are eager to get to know Sara. They insist that Sara stays in Amy's house, and refuse Sara's effort to pay for her groceries and meals. They even assign her a chauffeur.

Feeling entangled and with a need to repay all their kindnesses, Sara happens upon the idea of opening a bookstore in an abandoned storefront, using Amy's eclectic collection. Amazingly, it is an absolute success and before long, a tourist attraction, turning Broken Wheel into a hotbed of romance and progressive ideas. Now, can the town folks work more of their magic in getting Sara to stay? For good?

"This gentle, intelligent Midwestern tale will captivate fans of Antoine Laurain's The Red Notebook; Nina George's The Little Paris Bookshop; and Gabrielle Zevin's The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry. An ideal book group selection, it reminds us why we are book lovers and why it's nice to read a few happy endings."

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #578

The Longest Night * * by Andria Williams is inspired by a little-known historical fact - the nation’s only fatal nuclear accident, which occurred on January 3rd, 1961. Williams’ debut explores the lead-up to the tragedy through the eyes of a young army specialist and his wife.

Idaho Falls, 1959. Neither Paul Collier nor Nat(alie) fits in very well in their new home. Paul, the newest enlisted man at the experimental nuclear reactor, is dismayed at the problematic and dangerous condition of the reactor. When a clash with his buffoonish supervisor turns violent, he is deployed to Greenland for 6 months.

Left behind with two young children and pregnant with a third, Nat tries to make friends with the prim-and-proper army wives whose scintillating marital drama play out behind closed doors. But she finds her deepest friendship with a handsome young Mormon cowboy named Esrom, who proves to be both a help and a bright spot in her life, as well as a temptation and fuel for the rumor mill. Upon Paul's return, a nuclear event will force them to make decisions that will alter the course of their lives and others in the community.

"A smoldering, altogether impressive debut that probes the social and emotional strains on military families in a fresh and insightful way." May we also suggest: The Wives of Los Alamos by TaraShea Nesbit; You Know When the Men Are Gone by Siobhan Fallon; and Changing Light by Nora Gallagher.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #577

Only Love Can Break Your Heart by Ed Tarkington, the Indie Next List and the American Booksellers Association Indies Debut Pick of the Season, is a coming-of-age novel shot-through with ‘70s rock-n-roll.

Titled after a Neil Young song, it is set in Spencerville, Virginia, 1977, where 8-year-old Richard “Rocky” Askew worships his older brother, Paul, who allows him to tag along as he cruises around in his Chevy Nova, cigarette dangling from his lips, arm slung around the beautiful Leigh, daughter of Judge Bowman.

Unfortunate events pit the Askews against their wealthier neighbors, the Culvers and each other, triggering an unforgivable act of violence from Paul who disappears, but not before taking Leigh with him. Years later, as the Askews are struggling with declining health and financial ruin, Paul returns, looking for redemption and forgiveness. After a mysterious double murder brings terror and suspicion to their small town, Rocky and his family must reckon with the past and find a way to rebuild relationships - with each other, and with the town.

For readers who enjoyed My Sunshine Away by M.O. Walsh; A Land More Kind Than Home by Wiley Cash; and The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #576

One of February 2016 LibraryReads picks, Be Frank with Me * by Julia Claiborne Johnson, is one of the most enjoyable read I have come across for quite awhile.

M.M. (Mimi) Banning, whose first (and only) novel won her the Pulitzer as well as the a National Book Award at age 19, is desperately in need of a new book that would pull her out of financial ruin, having been the victim of Madoff-like investment adviser. Besides a substantial advance, she requires that her publisher send an assistant who "must drive, cook, tidy. Computer whiz. Good with kids. Quiet, discreet, sane, and no English majors or Ivy Leaguers", to manage her household and her 9 year old son, Frank.

That's how Alice Whitley ends up in the fortress-like Bel Air mansion. While Mimi is prickly and reclusive, it is Frank that wins Alice over, despite the disasters mother and son bring upon themselves. A walking encyclopedia of trivia facts and Hollywood lore, Frank dresses with the flare of a 1930s movie star and speaks with the confidence and wisdom beyond his years. Having no friend of his own age, Frank gradually opens up to Alice. When their sexy family friend Xander shows up, things decidedly take on an interesting turn.

"Johnson's magnificently poignant, funny, and wholly original debut goes beyond page-turner status...Her charming, flawed, quietly courageous characters, each wonderfully different, demand a second reading while we impatiently await the author's second work."

Readalikes: Marisa De los Santos' Love Walked In; Brooke Davis' Lost & Found, and Tell the Wolves I'm Home by Carol Rifka Brunt, all fabulous fiction firsts.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #575

The Blue Line, the first novel by Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian French politician/activist who made headline news when she was kidnapped by the FARC, a brutal terrorist guerrilla organization and rescued six years later. Her memoir Even Silence Has An End : my six years of captivity in the Colombian jungle (2010) was well-received.

Set against the backdrop of Argentina's Dirty War in 1970s and '80s, and infused with magical realism, Betancourt draws on history and personal experience in this story of love, loyalty, and sacrifice.

Julia was 5 years old when she first experienced the "gift", inherited from her grandmother. She was able to see future disasters unfold through the eyes of others and therefore, to intervene. At fifteen, Julia falls in love with Theo, a handsome revolutionary but they were drawn into the political chaos with the return of Juan Peron to Argentina. As Montoneros sympathizers and radical idealists, they were arrested and imprisoned and, brutally tortured. While many of their family members (and innocent citizens) were killed or simply disappeared, they somehow managed to escape but were separated.

The narrative opens some 30 years later, in Connecticut where Julia is working as a translator. The story of how Julia and Theo were reunited gradually comes together.

Read-alikes: Island Beneath the Sea by Isabel Allende; and the 2014 International Impac Dublin Literary Award winner The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vasquez where a young man in Bogota reflects on the many ways in which his own life and that of others in his circle, have been shaped by his country's recent violent past.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #574 "So with the lamps all put out, the moon sunk, and a thin rain drumming on the roof, a downpouring of immense darkness began. Nothing, it seemed, could survive the flood..." ~ Virginia Woolf

Noah's Wife by Lindsay Rebecca Stark draws upon the motifs of the biblical flood story to explore the true meaning of community.

When Noah met his wife on a rain-battered whale-watching ship, the attraction was electric and mutual. The torrential downpour on their wedding day failed to spoil the happy occasion. Now Noah, a charismatic and energetic young minister has been called to a gray and wet little town in the hills where it has been raining for as long as anyone could remember, where everything - including the church is rotting in the rain.

Driven by her desire to help her minister husband revive the congregation, Noah's wife, who "has a talent for bringing out the best in people", is thwarted by the resistance of her eccentric new neighbors, and by Noah's crisis of faith.

As the river water rises, flooding the once-renowned zoo, the animals are evacuated - sending the penguins to the freezer at the local diner, the cheetah to the organist, the red fox to Noah's wife, and the peacocks (nursing a broken wing) to the general store. But the worse is still to come. And it will take everyone working together to keep their world afloat.

"Variously romantic, symbolic, philosophical, feminist, and fanciful, this is an atmospheric tale that meanders to a sweetly rousing conclusion. Forget the ark, forget the patriarch. It's the women who tend to triumph in this modern take on an Old Testament parable."

For character-driven novels about small-town life, readers might try The Next Queen of Heaven by Gregory Maguire; The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman; and The Mitford series by Jan Karon.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #573

Chicago native Jessica Chiarella's debut And Again imagines the consequences when four ordinary individuals are granted a chance to continue their lives in genetically perfect versions of themselves.

Hannah, David, Connie, and Linda have been selected in a lottery for the SUBlife (cloning) pilot program at Northwestern University Hospital, giving them new bodies where blemishes, scars, freckles, and wrinkles have all disappeared, and most importantly, their terminal illnesses have been cured. But the fresh start they've been given is anything but perfect.

Hannah, a talented painter can no longer paint. David, a conservative Congressman with little regards for rules, now faces moral quandary and political suicide for his participation in the program. Connie, once an Emmy-award actress who dreams of relaunching her career, only to find that her one meaningful relationship is with a blind neighbor. Linda, paralyzed for eight year after a car accident, finds that her family has built a new life without her. Previously strangers, they meet at a support group over the course of a year as they come to terms with their new, now healthy bodies, try to resume their interrupted lives, and forge new relationships.

"In the spirit of Never Let Me Go and The Age of Miracles, And Again is an exciting literary debut about identity, second chances, and the courage to start life afresh. "

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #572

Readers mourning the untimely death of Ariana Franklin, the creator of the 12th-century medical examiner Adelia Aguilar series should be pleased with a new series by Andrea Japp called The Lady Agnes Mystery (translated from the French by Lorenza Garcia).

One of the grandes dames of French crime writing and a forensic scientist by profession, Japp sets this series in early 14th century Normandy when the King of France and the Catholic Church were locked in a battle for power, amidst the medieval Inquisition.

Agnès Philippine Claire, illegitimate daughter of Robert, Baron de Larnay, was married off at thirteen to one of her father's cronies and widowed by sixteen. As Dame de Souarcy, running the estate falls on her shoulder when clothing and feeding her household is a constant struggle. She also has to contend with her lustful half-brother Eudes, who has turned his lecherous advances on her 11-year-old daughter, Mathilde. Meanwhile, in the countryside someone is killing friars and slashing their faces postmortem, possibly in an attempt to make their deaths seem the work of a wild animal in “The Season of the Beast,”, the first of four stories that showcase the courage and cunning needed for Agnes to survive in a time when women had few choices in life other than being “born to wealth, married, nuns, or prostitutes."

Read-alikes for Maurice Druon's The Iron King; C.J. Sansom's Matthew Shardlake series; and Jean-François Parot's Nicolas Le Floch investigations.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #571 (and truly a small gem)

As I was getting ready my Small Gems blog for this December, my copy of Anna and the Swallow Man * * arrived on my doorstep, and my choice is obvious. "I have never read anything quite like this book", wrote the reviewer for The Guardian, and neither have I.

"When Anna Lania woke on the morning of the sixth of November in the year 1939 - her seventh - there was several things that she did not know", one of them being her father, a Linguistics professor at the Jagiellonian University, would never return, having been rounded up by the Gestapos in Occupied Poland.

Turned out by a fearful family friend, hungry and cold, Anna met a tall and exceedingly thin man who not only shared Anna's command of languages, but he could also speak to the birds, and seemed to have more than a little magic up his sleeves. As the pair wandered the countryside together for years, they dodged bombs, tame soldiers, and in the process, the Swallow Man taught Anna lessons of survival while remaining an enigma until the end.

"Subtly crafted with an intelligent structure and beautiful language, this was a compelling and thought-provoking read." "Artful, original, insightful." Marketed as Teen fiction, Anna will nevertheless appeal to readers of any age.

A readalike for The Book Thief, it too, is "a story about growing up during a time of monumental changes. It reveals life's hardest lesson while celebrating its miraculous possibilities."

Debut novelist Gavriel Savit holds a BFA in Musical Theatre from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, where he grew up. An an actor and singer, he lives in Brooklyn.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #570

The 3rd Woman by Jonathan Freedland, an award-winning journalist (The Guardian) set his debut thriller (written under his real name) in the not-so-distant future, in return for forgiving trillions in debt, the People's Republic of China, now the world's dominant global superpower, has established a permanent military presence on US soil. An economically weakened U.S. has also given China direct access to custom duties as part of the arrangement for repayments.

Los Angeles Times reporter Madison Webb will do anything to get to the heart of a story; to expose lies and corruption. When her younger sister is murdered and the Police seems too eager to write it up as an isolated incident, Maddy's investigation determines that the murder is one of a series; might be tied to a conspiracy that threatens some very powerful people; and that the Chinese military makes for a terrifying enemy.

For fans of international intrigue, try also I am Pilgrim by Terry Hayes; The Heist by Daniel Silva; The Expats by Chris Pavone; and novels by Jonathan Freedland written under the name of Sam Bourne.

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