Fabulous Fiction Firsts #458

Julia Dahl, a reporter for CBS News and the New York Post specializing in crime and criminal justice impresses with her debut Invisible City *. A solid good read for fans of Gillian Flynn, Cara Hoffman and Laura Lippman. (Check out the New York Times Sunday Book Review).

Twenty-something Rebekah Roberts thinks herself lucky to be hired on as a stringer for the New York Tribune, a daily tabloid. On a brutal winter's evening, she is sent to cover a story at a Brooklyn scrap yard where the body of a woman, head shaved and naked is found. Before the identity of the victim could be established, the body is carried off and quickly buried without an autopsy. She is shocked by the NYPD's lackadaisical handling of the case and its reluctance to cross the ultra-orthodox Hasidic community, even at the risk of letting a killer get away with murder.

There is also a personal reason for Rebekah to keep pursuing the story. She is drawn to this cloistered world of the Hasidic community, hoping to find out more about her mother who abandoned her as an infant to return to her Hasidic roots. Then she crosses path with a rogue detective who knows her mother, arranges for Rebekah to interview persons close to the victim, and presses her to get at the truth. "As Rebekah wades deeper into her mother's world, she finds both brutal truths and a society that eschews outsiders."

"This novel is particularly notable for its combination of a skillfully wrought, increasingly suspenseful mystery populated by well-drawn characters and a deeply sympathetic understanding of a contemporary culture that remains insular for its own understandable reasons."

The explosive conclusion clearly anticipates a sequel. Can't wait.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #457 - Classics Reboot

Fans of her Tony Hill (adapted into TV series as Wire in the Blood) and Kate Brannigan crime series will rejoice in Val McDermid's latest - the first in a projected new series, and a homage to Jane Austen by taking on her most "gothic-toned story", recasting a contemporary Northanger Abbey at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.

In this 21st century novel, Cat(herine) Morland, though still the naive vicar's daughter in a quaint Dorset village, is a Facebook and other social media junkie as well as a slave to all devices digital like teenagers everywhere. A voracious fiction reader who is partial to the gothic, finding little adventure and romance in real life. When an invitation for a month-long stay in Edinburgh comes her way, Cat is delighted. But the whirlwind of outings, new friendship, and a budding love interest (the dreamy Henry Tilney, an up-and-coming lawyer whose family home is the beautiful and forbidding Northanger Abbey), might just be more than Cat could handle.

"A delectable, note-perfect modern update of the Jane Austen classic, Northanger Abbey tells a timeless story of innocence amid cynicism, the exquisite angst of young love, and the value of friendship."

When an unnamed narrator opens with "Last night I dreamed of Nauquasset again", savvy readers will immediately recognize the direct reference to Daphne du Maurier's classic Rebecca in Alena by Rachel Pastan.

At the Venice Biennale, a newly minted art historian cannot believe her good fortune when offered a position as the curator of a cutting-edge museum on Cape Cod. The Nauk (Nauquasset), founded by the wealthy, enigmatic, somewhat brooding Bernard Augustin, is still weathering the turmoils from the mysterious disappearance of its previous curator - the charismatic and beautiful Alena. The recalcitrant staff, loyal to Alena, threatens to stifle the new curator's every effort to realize her own creative vision. The only likely ally (and love interest) is found in the hard-bitten local police chief Chris Passoa, who persists to investigate Alena's disappearance, even after two years.

"Stirring and provocative..." "Hitchcockian..." "Flush with erotic intrigues and insights into real, working artists, Pastan has written a smart, chilling thriller that leaves readers thoroughly spooked."

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #456

The darling of the 2012 Frankfurt Book Fair that inspired frenzied bidding, already a bestseller in Europe, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair * will soon be released in the US (translated from the French by Sam Taylor), and destined to be one of this year's hottest summer read. (Also available in the original in the World Language Collection).

Joël Dicker, the 28 year-old Geneva-based author sets this charming whodunit in an idyllic seaside village in New Hampshire, having spent his childhood summers in New England.

On August 30, 1975, Nola Kellergan 15, was reported by a neighbor fleeing through the Somerset (NH) woods never to be seen again. The narrative picks up in 2008, when Marcus Goldman, a successful young novelist suffering from extreme writer's block, seeks advice from Harry Quebert, his good friend and mentor, and one of the country's most respected writers. Snooping around in Harry's home office in Somerset, Marcus comes across material links between Harry and the missing Nola. Just days after, a landscaper finds Nola's remains in Harry's yard.

As the national media convicts Harry, Marcus launches his own investigation, following a trail of clues literary and tangible, teasing out sordid small-town secrets in an attempt to save Harry, his own writing career, and eventually maybe himself.

The winner of three French literary prizes, including the Grand Prix du Roman from the Académie Française, and was a finalist for the Prix Goncourt, The Truth About the Harry Quebert Affair is a "fast-paced, tightly plotted, cinematic literary thriller".

Film rights sold to Warner Bros. Variety reports that Ron Howard will direct.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #455

Violet Kupersmith, still in her early 20s, offers "(a)n extraordinarily compelling debut of ghost stories, written as an undergraduate (Mount Holyoke) that grapple with the legacy of the Vietnam War".

Praised by fellow writers as "surgically precise and feverishly imaginative" (Tea Obreht), "...teem(ing) with sensuous and exuberant life" (Valerie Martin), "...deftly funny and yet so deadly serious" (Yiyun Li), The Frangipani Hotel * * will not disappoint.

The titular L'Hotel Frangipane, "swanky name, shitty place", located in the Old Quarter of Hanoi, is a 1/2-star, seven-story death trap, run haphazardly by an extended family where a beautiful young woman, floating fully dressed in an overflowing bathtub in an unoccupied room, seduces an American businessman into a moonlight swim with dark intent.

In "Skin and Bones", in need of losing a few pounds, an overweight Houston teenager is shipped off to spend the summer with her grandmother in Ho Chi Minh City, only to discover the delicious Bánh mì, offered by a curiously-friendly street vendor as the city naps in the sultry afternoons.

Based on traditional ghost stories told to her by the author's Vietnamese grandmother, "each of the stories is replete with characters both fabulous and ordinary, stories out of this world and firmly rooted in it. Each is meticulously told by a storyteller talented and wise beyond her years." Highly recommended for literary fiction fans.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #454 - “those of us who read because we love it more than anything, who feel about bookstores the way some people feel about jewelers...” ~ Anna Quindlen

Leaving home for the first time armed with a prestigious scholarship (Art History) at Columbia, 23 yr.-old Brit Esme Garland is dazzled by Manhattan and smitten with the attention of Mitchell van Leuven, a gorgeous, wealthy, blue-blooded New Yorker with an appetite for all things erotic. He abruptly ends their short fling before Esme could tell him she is pregnant.

Determined to get through this on her own, Esme takes a job in a secondhand bookstore on Broadway, a gathering place for the eccentric, who watch over her through her pregnancy - from the laconic owner to the taciturn, guitar-playing night manager. Together they must struggle for the survival of the store in the challenging retail slum.

The Bookstore * by first time novelist Deborah Meyler is a "sharply observed and evocative tale of learning to face reality without giv­ing up on your dreams... sheer enchantment from start to finish."

"Above all, it's about the love of books. A deeply satisfying novel you will keep close to your heart, written in a style by turns witty and poetic."

Award-winning author Gabrielle Zevin gives us "(a) likable literary love story about selling books and finding love" in The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry * (More in a recent NPR interview).

A.J. Fikry, the irascible owner of Island Books on Alice Island (think Martha's Vineyard) off the coast of MA, is going through a tough spot: he lost his wife in a car accident, his bookstore is experiencing the worst sales in its history, and his prized possession--a rare edition of Poe poems--has been stolen. Over time, he has given up on people, and even the books in his store, until an unlocked door brings the most astonishing gift, and a young publisher's rep. offers him the chance to make his life over.

The Storied Life is about "a life of books, redemption, and second chances. Funny, tender, and moving.” It also tops the April LibraryReads list of the Top Ten Books that Librarians Across the Country Love.

Sarah Jio's Goodnight, June imagines the inspiration behind Goodnight Moon, a beloved classic among generations of young readers.

June Anderson, a successful NY financier is lonely and unhappy in her personal life. She is unexpectedly called home to Seattle, to settle her great-aunt Ruby's estate and to dispose of Bluebird Books - the children's bookstore Ruby founded in the 1940s. Amidst the store's papers, June stumbles upon letters between Ruby and the late Margaret Wise Brown, and that Brown not only visited the bookstore, but Ruby had in fact, inspired Goodnight Moon.

When June receives notice the shop is within days of foreclosure, she has a change of heart. In her rally to save the bookstore, June learns an important lesson about acceptance and forgiveness.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #453 - "Every man is surrounded by a neighborhood of voluntary spies" ~ Jane Austen

The Zodiac Deception * by award-winning reporter for the New York Times Gary Kriss is a fast-paced WWII espionage thriller. "Crisp prose and a well-structured storyline" also makes it entertaining.

June 1942, Princeton professor David Walker didn't exactly volunteer, but OSS chief Wild Bill Donovan convinced him posing as German astrologer Peter Kepler was the only option other than prison, considering his checkered past. Walker's mission: rely on his skills learned as a protégé of both Harry Houdini and Arthur Conan Doyle, to use illusion, sleight of hand and deception to gain Heinrich Himmler's trust and persuade him to assassinate Adolph Hitler.

From Berlin to Paris to Cairo; from Hitler's Eagle Nest to Himmler's occult Wewelsburg Castle, Walker walked a tightrope of deceit, navigating impossible challenges. To further complicate the mission, he fell in love with a maker of Nazi propaganda films and must rescue her from Paris' labyrinth underground sewers.

"Gary Kriss's The Zodiac Deception is a memorable debut, an unforgettable thrill ride through the dark heart of World War II Germany." A sequel is in the works. Stay tuned.

David Downing, author of the John Russell espionage series set in WWII Berlin, begins a new series with Jack of Spies, set on the eve of the First World War.

It is 1913, Jack McColl, a globe-trotting Scottish car salesman with an uncanny ear for languages, travels from city to great city trying to sell his company's luxury car, the Maia, while collecting intelligence for His Majesty's Navy. As the world tumbles towards war, his spy duties intensify along with danger quotient.

Meanwhile, a sharp, vivacious American suffragette journalist has wiled her way deep into his affections whose family may be involved in a plot against the British, putting him in the impossible position to choose between love and country.

"(F)ull of rich historical and cultural details", both of these FFFs would appeal to fans of Alan Furst, Philip Kerr; and Kate Mosse's latest Citadel (2014), where a group of WWII French Resistance women fighters risk everything to protect astonishing secrets buried in a village nestled deep in the Pyrenees.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #452

Delicious! * is absolutely irresistible if you are a Ruth Reichl fan. The former New York Times restaurant critic, Gourmet magazine editor-in-chief, and bestselling author of culinary memoirs is turning to fiction (some would say rather semi-autobiographical?) for the first time, and the result is "a magical novel... that draws brilliantly on her wisdom and humor about life, her perceptiveness about family, her understanding of character, her belief in romance, and ... her description of food, so vivid you can taste every bite".

My advice: Do not attempt on an empty stomach!

College drop-out Billie Breslin lands the dream job at Delicious!, New York's most iconic food magazine. She has no culinary skills to recommend her but a "superhuman palate" (she can taste any dish and list its ingredients and suggest the flavors it needs) which endears her to the colorful staff at the magazine, as well as customers at the famous Italian food shop where she works on weekends.

When Delicious! is abruptly shut down, Billie stays on in the empty office to maintaining the hotline for reader complaints, one of which leads her to a cache of letters hidden in the magazine's library, written during WWII by a Lulu Swan to the legendary chef James Beard.

This discovery leads to more clues (in the card catalog!!), a road trip, a forged connection, a glamor-makeover; and gives her the courage to face her fears, and be open to romantic possibilities.

"Reichl's... insider's look at life at a food magazine is fascinating. Her satisfying coming-of-age novel of love and loss vividly demonstrates the power of food to connect people across cultures and generations."

Also included are: A Conversation Between Ann Patchett and Ruth Reichl, and Billie's Gingerbread recipe.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #451

Retirement is pretty fabulous and I highly recommend it. However, there are certainly aspects of my work that I truly missed, blogging about books is one of them. So, Muffy is back, and just in time to bring you this wonderful first novel, published to coincide with the celebration of Will's 450th birthday this month.

Dark Aemilia * * is based on the life and loves of Aemilia Bassano Lanyer - the first woman poet to be published (in English), whom historians have called a "proto-feminist", choosing to dedicate many of her poems to a host of distinguished women.

British novelist Sally O'Reilly begins her U.S. debut with a young Aemilia, one of Queen Elizabeth's favorites at court, and mistress to Henry Carey, first Lord Hunsdon, the Queen's lord chamberlain. Learned and intelligent, she captivates the brash, young playwright Will and their clandestine affair proves to be her undoing. As the estrangement between them grows with each misunderstanding and misfortune, their love persists - painfully and without hope.

"With elegant style, masterly wordplay, and an eye for historical detail, O'Reilly beautifully relates a passionate and tragic love story, worthy of two such well-known figures". She also casts Aemilia in the shadowy role of the "Dark Lady" - the object of Shakespeare's late sonnets, and further fuels the debate as to the authorship of his plays.

"O'Reilly brings her star-crossed lovers together and drives them apart through plot twists that are, for once, credible outgrowths of the characters' personalities and beliefs, finally giving them a tender, heartbreaking parting. First-rate historical fiction: marvelously atmospheric and emotionally engaging." For fans of Philippa Gregory and Sarah Dunant.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #450 - For All Ages

Here is something extraordinarily fun and quirky and I hope, unexpectedly moving as well.

"If Roald Dahl had rewritten The Picture of Dorian Gray to include a gang of 24 bandits and a giant balloon, the result might have been Gianni Rodari's wonderfully improbable novel that, for all its humor, is loosely based upon the 1978 kidnapping and murder of Italian politician Aldo Moro" and that! would be Lamberto Lamberto Lamberto.

When we first meet 93-year-old millionaire Baron Lamberto, he has been diagnosed with 24 life-threatening ailments, one for each of the 24 banks he owns. But when he takes the advice of an Egyptian mystic and hires servants to chant his name over and over again, he seems to not only get better, but younger, to the chagrin of his ne'er-do-well nephew who is impatient to inherit.

When a terrorist group lays siege to his island villa, his team of bank managers has to be bussed in to help with the ransom negotiations, and a media spectacle breaks out . . .

Gianni Rodari (October 23, 1920 -April 14, 1980) was an Italian writer and journalist, most famous for his books for children. The recipient of the Hans Christian Andersen Award in 1970, Rodari is a household name in Italy among educators and parents, not to mention children. Influenced by French surrealism and linguistics, Rodari advocated poetry and language play as a way to recover the rhythm and sound of oral tradition and nursery rhymes. One of Italy's most beloved fables, Lamberto is only now translated into English. Much of the charm lies with Maggioni's ink drawings in this edition.

2104 Notable Books - The Fiction List

Here are the winning titles for the 2014 Notable Books List — The American Library Association's annual literary award that identifies 25 outstanding, very readable, and at times very important fiction, nonfiction, and poetry books for the adult reader. Again, we are pleased to see a number of first novelists getting the recognition.

Fiction Winners

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. The nuances and challenges of race, emigration and cultural identification are explored through the lives of two Nigerian lovers.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson. What would happen if death were just a new beginning?

Claire of the Sea Light by Edwidge Danticat. A bittersweet fable of modern Haiti told in luminous prose.

Too Bright to Hear Too Loud to See by Juliann Garey. The fragmented and unsettling perspective of a man grappling with mental illness. (A FFF - blog)

Enon by Paul Harding. A father struggles with the accidental death of his 15 year-old daughter. Grief on paper.

The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma. Around the world with a charmingly unreliable narrator in this coming-of-age tale. (A FFF - blog)

The Dinner by Herman Koch, translated from the Dutch by Sam Garrett. If they sat next to us in a restaurant, we would do well to simply study our forks.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. An affirmation of life amidst the chaos of war-torn Chechnya. (A FFF - blog)

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud. A taut psychological drama of slow-burning anger.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Tokyo meets Sunnyvale and British Columbia through a purple gel pen, a tsunami and a Hello Kitty lunchbox with a side of quantum physics.

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt. A terrorist bomb blows apart a 13-year-old boy’s world.

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