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.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #569

The Drifter * by Nicholas Petrie (a Hopwood Awards winner while an undergraduate at the University of Michigan) introduces to Jack Reacher fans a new cult hero.

Lt. Peter Ash, a highly decorated former Marine (Iraq and Afghanistan), suffers debilitating claustrophobia, a form of PTSD that drives him outdoors, living rough for over a year. Only the death of his former sergeant/best friend Jimmy Johnson could force him to return to the dilapidated Milwaukee neighborhood.

While making repairs on the crumbling porch on the Johnson's house, Peter finds more than he bargained for: the largest, ugliest, meanest dog and a Samsonite suitcase stuffed with cash and explosives. As Peter begins to track down the owner of the suitcase, he finds himself at the center of a conspiracy plot that is far larger, more sinister and deadlier than he could have imagined.

"A powerful, empathetic, and entertaining tale about the plight many combat veterans face when they come home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Top-notch storytelling."

“A tangled tale of intrigue, action, and adventure with a battle-scarred hero who definitely rises to the challenge. The clever plot is firmly conceived and crisp writing makes this a terrific story." ~ Steve Berry.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #568

The Improbability of Love * * * is film director and documentarian Hannah Rothschild's debut novel, spinning "a dazzling tale--both irreverent and entertaining--of a many-layered, devious world where, in the end, love triumphs."

The novel opens on a blistering July day when all of London (and the world) turn out at the auction of THE painting - "the first time that a painting has been marketed with a world tour, a biography, an app, its own website, a motion picture and a documentary film", a painting rescued from a junk shop only 6 months before, after languishing behind a rubber plant for 50 years. 300-years ago, an unheralded Antoine Watteau created an homage to his unrequited love, entitled The Improbability of Love. Along the way, it passed through the hands of emperors, popes, and kings before finding its way to Nazi Germany.

Annie McDee, recovering from a long-term relationship, relocates to London and works as a chef for owners of Winkleman Fine Art. On impulse she buys a lovely little painting as a gift for a new and unsuitable boyfriend, and innocently sets off an art-world and geopolitical cataclysm.

"An opulently detailed, suspensefully plotted, shrewdly witty novel of decadence, crimes ordinary and genocidal... the book is at its best when delving into the lives of the many people affected by the Watteau."

"Rothschild packs the narrative with vivid details, especially about art and food (she is a Trustee of the Tate, and in 2015 became the first woman to chair the National Gallery, London). For readers who particularly enjoy the blend of art, mystery and intrigue, as in Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch; Nicole Kruass' The History of Love ; and B.A. Shapiro's The Art Forger.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

The Best of 2015

It's that time of the year. Avid readers are eager to see how their favorites in the past 12 months stack up against other great reads. Many will depend on them for gift-giving inspirations. Or simply use the lists to jump start on the titles you have been meaning to get around to.

If you are flummoxed by the massive New York Times 100 Notable Books of 2015, you are not alone. I suggest you take a look at some of the more focused Best of the Best lists. Let's start with their 10 Best Books of 2015.

Goodreads Choice Awards is the only major book awards decided by readers. Very democratic and organized in 20 categories: Fiction, Mystery & Thriller, Historical Fiction, Fantasy, Romance... etc. as well as Nonfiction, Memoir & Autobiography, Science & Technology, and Humor.

The site that gives us top ten books published each month that librarians across the country love, just released LibraryReads Favorite of Favorites 2015. Not many surprises there but what a strong list! (and three of them debut novels).

I also like Publishers Weekly's Best Books 2015; BuzzFeed's The 24 Best Fiction Books Of 2015; The Washington Post's The 10 Best Books of 2015 (if you scroll down this last list, you will see a list for the Best Audiobooks as well as Best Graphic Novels).

Happy Reading.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #567

The Boys * * is the first of Toni Sala's books to ever be published in English. The recipient of the 2005 National Literature Prize awarded by the Catalan government, Sala also received the Premis de la Crítica (The Critics Prize for Fiction Catalan) for The Boys in 2014.

In the sleepy Catalonian village of Vidreres, at the foothills of the Pyrenees, two teenage boys, sons of a powerful landowner, were killed in a horrible accident. Overnight, the grief changed the lives of everyone in town, including our four narrators: Iona, a teenage girl who narrowly escapes the same fate by refusing a ride, now she is left to wrestle with survivor's guilt; Ernest, the local banker heads out to the crash site and seeks solace by visiting a hooker; brutish trucker Miqui, no stranger to mayhems, is quietly touched by the deaths; and Nil, an unhinged artist is in pursuit of Iona.

"Long recognized among Catalonia's leading authors, Toni Sala is at his dark, mischievous best, delivering a sinister, fast-moving tale laced with labyrinthine meditations... From Internet hookups and face transplants to tense standoffs, sexual fantasies, and the loss of the ones we hold most dear, Sala offers us a frighteningly contemporary vision of how alone we are in an age of unparalleled connectivity."

Will appeal to fans of Javier Marias, Horacio Castellanos Moya; Michael Ondaatje; and Michel Houellebecq.

* * = 2 starred reviews

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