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

South African Crime (and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #479)

The Sunday Times Fiction winner Andrew Brown introduces tormented Detective Inspector Eberard Februarie, in Coldsleep Lullaby * *, an intelligent and compelling police procedural set in Stellenbosch, in the heart of South Africa's wine region. Just released in the U.S., this series opener involves the murder of a young woman in the underworld of an old university town fraught with prejudice and sexual hedonism.

Melanie Du Preez, daughter of a prominent law professor is found floating in a river. DI Eberard Februarie, recently reinstated after an emotional meltdown is called to investigate. Eberard discovers a scrapbook of lullabies that Melanie had collected over the years, which could hold a clue to unlock the case. In alternating chapters, the readers learn of the Dutch East India Company's colonization of the region in the 17th century that ultimately plays a role in the current murder. Two other victims will die in rapid succession before the volatile case is solved.

"With its lush, detailed descriptions, Brown's debut successfully captures both the beautiful landscapes and the violent textures of South Africa's racially charged history."

Cobra (an October release) by Deon Meyer - the "King of South African crime", again probes the social and racial complexities of post-apartheid South Africa. The bodies of three people are found at an exclusive guest house in the beautiful Franschhoek wine valley. Two of them were professional bodyguards, but the renowned mathematician David Adair they were protecting is nowhere to be found. Detective Benny Griessel of Cape Town's elite Hawks found spent shell cases at the crime scene bearing a chilling engraving: the flaring head of a spitting cobra, trademark of an international assassin team.

Meanwhile, a small-time pickpocket Tyrone Kleinbooi who steals to put his sister through med school, inadvertently winds up as the Cobra next target. With the help of his colleagues, Detective Benny Griessel rushes to untangle a case that only grows more complex. From Cape Town's famous waterfront to a deadly showdown on a suburban train, Cobra hurtles towards a shocking finale and someone may not make it out alive.

Needing no introduction is the latest in the award-winning series by Malla Nunn Present Darkness *. With Christmas approaching, Detective Sergeant of the Johannesburg major crimes squad, Emmanuel Cooper's much anticipated vacation plan evaporates when a white couple has been assaulted and left for dead in their bedroom. A witness identifies the attacker as Aaron Shabalala, the youngest son of Zulu Detective Constable Samuel Shabalala -- Cooper's best friend and a man to whom he owes his life.

Readers might also explore the David Bengu series by Michael Stanley; the Jacob Tshabalala series by Richard Kunzmann; and the Heat of the Sun mini television series.

* * = 2 starred reviews
* = starred review

Sizzling Summer Reads #4 (& Fabulous Fiction Firsts #478 ) "Summer's lease hath all too short a date.” ~ William Shakespeare

The Last Kings of Sark * by Rosa Rankin-Gee (named one of Esquire magazine's 75 Brilliant Young Brits', and winner of the Shakespeare & Company's international Paris Literary Prize in 2011).

Sark, pop.400, a remote car-less Channel Island, reached only by an all-day ferry ride (or private plane) from Guernsey. Jude, a recent grad (St. Andrews and wrongly assumed to be a guy, as in Law, Hey, and the Obscure), is hired by Eddy, the patriarch of the Defoe family to tutor 16 year-old Pip for the summer before university. Thrown together by necessity, Jude and Sofi, the magnetic, mercurial family cook, quickly bond as roommates and coconspirators. Left on their own away from adult eyes, the three embark on a magical summer of exploring. Years later, as their lives take them to Paris, Normandy and London, memories of the summer they shared on Sark remain.

Debut novelist "Rankin-Gee's tactile, mellifluous prose is on full display here, as the tiniest details help fully immerse readers in the otherworldly island setting." "The fluid sexuality will be a welcome offering for readers of LGBT fiction. "

"Compelling, sensual, and lyrical..., a tale of complicated love, only children and missed opportunities."

Anne Rivers Siddons offers her fans another emotionally gripping, beach-themed read with The Girls of August.

Every August, four women gather for a week of relaxation at a beach house. This started when their husbands met at med school, and the rich Cornelia, married to the party-animal Teddy, invited them to her beach house. Cornelia didn't last, and the annual trip was suspended when Melinda (Mrs. Teddy #2) dies in a tragic accident, and the Girls of August slowly drift apart.

When "Baby," who is half the age of the other ladies becomes Mrs. Teddy #3, she attempts to reestablish the August ritual. As Rachel, Barbara and narrator Maddy gather at a remote beach house on a barrier island off the South Carolina coast, the women must come to terms with their differences and find a sense of unity in the midst of health issues, marital conflict, and infertility as they ride out a violent storm.

Not ready to bide the bare-foot season farewell? Try Sweet Salt Air by Barbara Delinsky; All the Summer Girls by Meg Donohue; The Last Original Wife by Dorothea Benton Frank; The Island by Elin Hilderbrand; and A Hundred Summers by Beatriz Williams. Enjoy these precious last days of summer.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #477 - Spotlight on Family Sagas

The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing * by Mira Jacob opens with celebrated brain surgeon Thomas Eapen sitting on his porch at his home in New Mexico talking to dead relatives. At least that is the story his wife, Kamala, prone to exaggeration, tells their daughter, Amina, a Seattle area wedding photographer. Knowing that she has been manipulated, Amina nevertheless, arranges for a visit home where she soon realizes that something may actually be wrong with her father. The trouble might be rooted in the family's visit to India some twenty years ago; the tension between her father and Ammachy, her grandmother and family matriarch; and the mystery behind the death of her older brother, the rebellious and brilliant Akhil.

"(L)ight and optimistic, unpretentious and refreshingly witty... Jacob has created characters with evident care and treats them with gentleness even as they fight viciously with each other. Her prose is sharp and true and deeply funny." "(A) winning, irreverent debut novel about a family wrestling with its future and its past."

Matthew Thomas's debut - We Are Not Ourselves * * is "a very moving book about the dangers of always wanting more."

Smart and ambitious Eileen Tumulty, dutiful daughter born to hard-drinking Irish working-class parents, looks for a better life for herself by training as a nurse. When she marries Ed Leary, a quiet neuroscientist, she is disappointed with his choice teaching at a community college despite more lucrative and prestigious offers. With their Jackson Heights (Queens) neighborhood in decline, Eileen is desperate to move out of the city (and up the social ladder), into a fixer-upper that they could ill afford. Then Ed is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's.

"Thomas works on a large canvas to create a memorable depiction of Eileen's vibrant spirit, the intimacy of her love for Ed, and the desperate stoicism she exhibits as reality narrows her dreams. Her life, observed over a span of six decades, comes close to a definitive portrait of American social dynamics in the 20th century. Thomas's emotional truthfulness combines with the novel's texture and scope to create an unforgettable narrative."

Thirty-five years (and 20-some titles) after her wildly successful generational saga set in Australia - The Thorn Birds (based on her family's history), Colleen McCullough returns to the genre with Bittersweet, an epic romance set in the decades after WWI, about two sets of Latimer twins, all trained as nurses but each with her own ambitions.

"McCullough's background in medicine is apparent as she seamlessly weaves in information about the history of nurse's training in Australia and the development of modern pathology. Bittersweet is both a fascinating exploration of the bonds between sisters and a fine historical novel."

* = starred review
* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #476 - "There can be no keener revelation of a society's soul than the way in which it treats its children." ~ Nelson Mandela

Long-time NPR feature reporter Martha Woodroof's debut novel Small Blessings * is one of August 2014 Indie Next Great Reads.

Tom Putnum, an English professor at a small Virginia college is resigned to a quiet hollow life, filling his days teaching Shakespeare and caring for the emotionally fragile Marjory, his wife who is a virtual shut-in. Then within a matter of days, Tom's life is upended. Twice.

Marjory is killed in a car accident and Tom learns that he has a son, product of a brief affair with a visiting poet a decade ago. Now the boy, Henry is on a train heading to live with Tom. When young Henry arrives, it's immediately clear that Tom can't possibly be his biological father, never mind his name is on the birth certificate. Even more inexplicable is the half a million dollars stashed in Henry's backpack.

Amid funeral plans, Tom and Agnes, his feisty mother-in-law, begin to make a home for Henry, with help from Rose Callahan, a charming young woman and a newcomer in town whom Tom and Marjory have befriended.

"A heartwarming story with a charmingly imperfect cast of characters to cheer for, Small Blessings's wonderfully optimistic heart that reminds us that sometimes, when it feels like life has veered irrevocably off track, the track shifts in ways we never can have imagined."

Four distinct voices narrate the story in Laura McBride's debut novel We Are Called to Rise * (the title taken from a poem by Emily Dickinson) - 8 year old Bashkim, the son of Muslim immigrants from Albania ill prepared for American life; 50-something Avis whose troubled marriage is compounded by her son's abusive behavior after three tours of duty in Iraq; Roberta, a seasoned court-appointed advocate for children; and Specialist Luis Rodriguez-Reyes - injured and traumatized after losing his best friend in Afghanistan. In a single moment, these disparate lives intersect. Faced with seemingly insurmountable loss, each person must decide whether to give in to despair, or to find the courage and resilience to rise.

Set in a Las Vegas rarely experienced by tourists, it is a story about families - the ones we have and the ones we make. "It challenges us to think about our responsibilities to each other and reminds us that compassion and charity can rescue us, even in our darkest moment."

For those who enjoyed Blessings by Anna Quindlen; Rush Home Road by Lori Lansens; Made in the U.S.A. by Billie Letts; and The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #475 - “The wound is the place where the Light enters you.” ~ Rumi

It seems to the world that 27 year-old Holly Jefferson is finally getting back on her feet, running her bakery, Cake after losing her husband in a tragic accident almost 2 years ago, never mind that she has trouble sleeping and has no social life to speak of. The commission of a bizarre cake brings Holly into the path of Ciaran Argyll - charming, privilege, incredibly handsome, and totally out of her league. But she has to admit - sparks fly.

Since You've Been Gone British author Anouska Knight's debut, "offers up a poignant look at grief and how it can serve to inspire or cripple us in equal measure."

"The perfect summer read: warm, sexy and addictive. " ~ Jenny Colgan

In Kim Wright's The Unexpected Waltz,, Kelly, a 52-year-old wealthy widow accidentally stumbles into a dance studio where she impulsively signs up for introductory ballroom-dancing lessons, and quickly becomes drawn to the studio's colorful students and instructors. Meanwhile, her volunteer work brings her into contact with a young cancer patient who challenges Kelly to embrace her new experiences.

"(Wright) expertly guides us through a moving, layered, and lyrical exploration of transformation."

A Year After Henry by Cathie Pelletier. Approaching the one-year anniversary of Henry Munroe's death, his family is still struggling to adjust. His wife Jeannie mourns their failed marriage more than she does his death. Henry's buxom mistress Evie Cooper has taken up with his brother Larry - divorced, under-employed and unhappily living with his elderly parents. Meanwhile, Henry's teenage son, Chad, is adrift in his grief, turning to drink.

"Sensitive yet witty, Pelletier's wise examination of one of life's most tragic episodes brims with hopeful understanding."

The Mountaintop School for Dogs and Other Second Chances by Ellen Cooney. This is the story of two women and a whole pack of dogs who, having lost their way in the world, find a place at the Sanctuary.

24 year-old Evie is clever, evasive, defiant and rebellious. Just out of rehab and utterly alone, she is determined to make a fresh start. So she lies her way to the mountaintop lodge which is home to a canine rescue and rehab center run by a handful of nuns. Never mind that Evie knows nothing about animals, she is a quick and keen learner. Drawn to the challenge, she finally finds the second chance she so desperately craves. In time, she also comes to know Mrs. Auberchon, the stern and defensive caretaker of the inn at the base of the mountain whose icy reserve masks painful secrets.

"Cooney has crafted an uncomplicated, feel-good, canine-filled tale of cross-generational friendship, healing, and solidarity."

No waiting for most of these readalikes:
Lost Lake by Sarah Addison Allen; Return to the Beach House by Georgia Bockoven (a FFF); The Lemon Orchard by Luanne Rice; and The Beginner's Goodbye by Anne Tyler.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #474 - "But mothers lie. It's in the job description.” ~ John Green

Two young women are witnesses to their mothers' murders. One of them might be a killer.

Elizabeth Little, author of 2 nonfiction books knocks it out of the park with Dear Daughter *, an "Agatha Christie meets Kim Kardashian... (a) sharp-edged, tart-tongued, escapist thriller", which Tana French praised as "The best debut mystery I've read in a long time"; and Kate Atkinson called "A really gutsy, clever, energetic read, often unexpected, always entertaining.... In the world of crime novels, Dear Daughter is a breath of fresh air."

After spending 10 years in prison for murdering her mother, former It Girl Janie Jenkins is out on a technicality. Her memory of the night in question is hazy, and there is no love lost between them, but she is determined to chase down the one lead she has on her mother's killer. As Janie makes her way (with a false identity) to an isolated South Dakota town, she discovers that even the sleepiest towns hide sinister secrets, and will stop at nothing to guard them.

On the run from a crime blogger convinced of her guilt, a suspicious police chief, maybe even a murderer, Janie must choose between the anonymity she craves and the truth she so desperately needs.

Set in the frozen tundra of rural Montana, Bone Dust White * is Karin Salvalaggio's literary mystery debut. The insistent pounding on her door brings Grace Adams to her bedroom window where she witnesses a man coming out of the woods, stabbing a woman and leaving her to die on Grace's doorstep. Before help arrives, Grace realizes the victim is her mother, Leanne who disappeared more than a decade before.

A heavily-pregnant Detective Macy Greeley is assigned to the case. She needs to track down the killer and find out what the murder has to do with Grace. But the town of Collier is just as hard-bitten now as it was 11 years ago when Macy worked a still-unsolved grisly sex-trafficking and multiple-homicide case. But no one is talking, least of all Grace, whom Macy believes knows a lot more than she's telling.

"The sharp twists, idiosyncratic characters, and vivid setting should appeal to fans of C. J. Box and Nevada Barr."

"This complicated, peel-away-layers debut procedural intoxicates from the opening page.... Recommend for fans of Archer Mayor, Gwen Florio, and Craig Johnson."

* = starred review

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