Fabulous Fiction Firsts #422 - Spotlight on Ann Arbor Authors (with news flash!)

Words failed me in describing Matt Bell's In the House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods *. It disturbs my dreams and shows up at unguarded moments. I now see why Keith Taylor recommended it as a "must-read" this summer. (Listen to the podcast and check out the feature in Publishers Weekly).

By turn called "charmingly bizarre and disturbing ", "spare, devastating", "dark, intriguingly odd fable", it tells how a newly-wed couple relocates to a remote and desolate homestead along a lake - to live simply off the land and water, to build a house and raise a family. With each failed pregnancy, they grow more distant - the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world and resent the wife whose beautiful voice could sing physical objects into existence and altering nature's course. As grief divides them, they must also separately grapple with the bear who rules their woods and the squid who dwells in their lake. A story that is "as beautiful as it is ruinous,... A tragedy of fantastic proportions".

"Bell finds whimsy in despair and reality in the absurd in this absorbingly virtuosic near fairy tale about marital struggle and personal reclamation. The result is a novel of catastrophic beauty and staggering originality. "

Formerly of Ann Arbor (a senior editor at Dzanc Books), currently an assistant professor in the English department at Northern Michigan University, Bell will be one of the speakers at this year's Kerrytown BookFest on Sunday, September 8th.

Signing at the BookFest will be local author Shirley G. Coleman, for her debut novel Mersoon Rising which the Michigan Chronicle review called a "sociopolitical space opera", that chronicles the lives and loves of the Jymirr race during an epic battle for the fate of a planet and an entire solar system.

Check out the feature story in the September 4th issue of the Ann Arbor Journal on Ms. Coleman, and Mersoon being the first title published by Plenary's Wild Seed Press imprint, which honors the late Octavia Butler, and is dedicated to publishing black American authors.

Click here for the BookFest event schedule.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #421 - "I see your face in every flower, your eyes in stars above ..."

Sarah Butler's Ten Things I've Learnt about Love * is the interwoven story of Alice and Daniel. It is a story about finding love in unexpected places, about rootlessness and homecoming, and the power of the ties that bind.

Alice, the youngest of three daughters, rushes from Mongolia to her father's London home just in time to say goodbye. Never close to any of her family, she is drawn to solitary travel and an unconventional career. Daniel is homeless, wandering the streets of London, making sculptures out of found objects. As his health is failing, he is kept alive by the knowledge that he has a daughter somewhere in the world from a long ago affair with a married woman.

The narrative alternates between Alice's and Daniel's perspectives as both struggle with self-forgiveness—. Unbeknownst to each other, they are both fond of creating "Top 10 Lists".

"Spare language and an atmosphere of foreboding will keep readers on tenterhooks. Whimsy and pathos, artfully melded."

Longlisted for the Orange Prize, Anna Stothard's (Oxford) "gritty but elegant U.S. debut" The Pink Hotel is also a New York Times Review Editors' Choice.

An unnamed seventeen-year-old girl pieces together the mystery of her mother Lily's life and death among the seedy bars and bedrooms half a world away from her father's London home. At the raucous and drug-fueled wake, held at a boutique hotel on Venice Beach (CA), she walks off with an old suitcase stuffed with Lily's clothes, letters, and photographs, as she begins an emotional scavenger hunt, trying to piece together the woman who abandoned her years ago, and finds unexpected love along the way.

"Told with high style and noirish flare, The Pink Hotel is a powerfully evocative debut novel about wish fulfillment, reckless impulse, and how we discover ourselves.

Award-winning British YA and children's author Sophie McKenzie makes her US debut with her first psychological thriller for adults Close My Eyes.

Geniver Loxley has never gotten over losing her daughter, a stillborn eight years ago while rounds of fertility treatment have failed. One day, a woman knocks on her door and claims that her daughter is alive, having been taken away as a healthy infant, and worse yet, her husband Art, successful and powerful, is in on the scheme. Reeling from the shocking news she turns to free-spirited Lorcan, an old colleague of Art's. As the two investigate, they discover some shocking secrets that put their lives in jeopardy.

However, nothing will prepare the reader for the chilling epilogue, a dark and twisted scenario that is the definite high point of the novel. So consider yourself warned.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #420 - Sugar 'n spice and everything nice?

Well, I'll let you be the judge. But seriously, 2 phenomenal debuts from across the pond, with unforgettable young protagonists, not to be missed.

A published poet, and one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists Jenni Fagan knocked it out of the park with her dazzling The Panopticon * *, which has been named one of the best books of the year by the Times Literary Supplement and The Scotsman.

Anais Hendricks, 15 is headed for the Panopticon, the much dreaded last-resort for chronic young offenders after she is found covered with the blood of a police officer. Violent, "permanently whacked on...drug(s)", and the product of foster homes (23 before she turned 7), she is a survivor and a counter-culture outlaw. Though experience taught her to only rely on herself, she finds a sense of belonging among the residents of the Panopticon, and soon forms strong bonds with the other troubled teens. Their struggle is with their keepers, especially when Anais is convinced she is part of a sinister experiment.

"Dark and disturbing but also exciting and moving thanks to a memorable heroine and vividly atmospheric prose."

"Anais's story is one of abandonment, loss, and redemption."

2013 Thriller Award nominee for Best Paperback Original Novel, Alex Marwood's (the pseudonym of a successful journalist) debut The Wicked Girls * * * is "(a) gritty, psychological thriller that asks the question: How well can you know anyone?"

On a fateful summer morning in 1986, 11 year-olds Jade Walker and Annabel (Bel) Oldacre meet for the first time. By the end of the day, they will both be charged with murder. Journalist Kirsty Lindsay, while following leads on a series of attacks on young female tourists in a seaside vacation town comes face to face with Amber Gordon, now a janitor for a carnival where the most recent crime is committed. This is their first meeting in 25 years after spending years in two separate British correctional facilities.

Kirsty and Amber, with new, vastly different lives, and unknowing families to protect, are desperate to keep their wicked secret hidden, and to uphold their probationary condition never to have contact with each other.

Marwood intersperses the contemporary serial-killer story line and hour-by-hour accounts of what happened the day the girls met 25 years ago. "This chilling debut is chock-full of surprises. If Tana French and Gillian Flynn stayed up all night telling stories at an abandoned amusement park, this is awfully close to what they might come up with."

"Gripping and fast-paced", it will appeal to fans of the Academy Award-nominated film Heavenly Creatures and the novels of Rosamund Lupton and Chevy Stevens."

"A suspenseful, buzz-worthy novel offering a sure-footed depiction of two women who lost their childhoods."

* * * = starred reviews
* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #419 and Other Innocents Abroad

Literary critic and journalist Caleb Crain (author profile), in his exquisite debut novel Necessary Errors brilliantly captures the lives and romances of young expatriates in newly democratic Prague.

Just a year too late to witness The Velvet Revolution, recent grad Jacob Putnam (Harvard) arrives in Prague to discover a country at a crossroads between communism and capitalism, and a picturesque city overflowing with a vibrant, searching sense of possibility. As the men and women Jacob meets begin to fall in love with one another, no one turns out to be quite the same as the idea Jacob has of them - that includes Jacob himself.

This coming-of-age novel, "(s)himmering and expansive" makes immediate the turbulent feelings and discoveries of youth as it transits toward adulthood, when chance encounters will grow into lasting relationships. Jacob's sexual identity meets with acceptance, a lonely and secretive life begins to blossom.

"Crain creates a compelling and heartfelt story that captures both the boundless enthusiasm and naïveté of youth... the detailed descriptions of Prague and Czech culture, in general, are sure to please those interested in this fascinating period in Eastern European history. Fans of Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station (another FFF from an award-winner) will find themselves similarly enchanted here."

In Kerrigan in Copenhagen : a love story, (a follow-up to the In the Company of Angels and Falling Sideways) by Thomas Kennedy, while researching for a guidebook about the pubs in Copenhagen, American expat Kerrigan consumes endless drinks that only in part numb his memories of a brutal family tragedy, a situation further complicated by his voluptuous research assistant. "(A) deeply human, Joycean romp through a magical city-its people, history, literature, and culture".

Petite Anglaise : a true story Catherine Sanderson recounts in delightful tone how she dealt with motherhood, a stale romance, and the daily grind of life in the City of Light by starting a blog under the name Petite Anglaise, which became an outlet for her reflections on expatriate life, her most intimate desires, her personal identity, and her quest to integrate her real life and her virtual one.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #418 - You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss...

In Kiss Me First *, Lottie Moggach's chilling and intense debut, sheltered and isolated, twentysomething Leila is deeply drawn into Red Pill, an online community where she finally finds people who understand her, and is thrilled when the website's brilliant and elusive founder Adrian Dervish asks to meet.

When Adrian proposes that she join the "Project Tess", Leila becomes totally immersed in the world of the beautiful, urbane, and witty Tess through constant e-mail, chat, and Skype in order for Leila to assume Tess's identity online, thus allowing Tess to make the desperate move to end her life. As Leila basks in the pleasures of creating a new fictional life for Tess, Tess's old boyfriend, Connor, makes contact, and Leila finds herself in way over her head.

London journalist/writer (Financial Times, Time Out, Elle, and GQ) crafted a taut psychological thriller that is ingeniously plotted, brilliantly frightening, and a compulsively readable, complex character study about identity, lies we tell ourselves and others.

Don't Kiss Me : stories is an explosive story collection from a bold, blistering new voice - Lindsay Hunter.

We meet Peggy Paula who envies the popular girls whom she waits on at Perkins. Sidelined during a high-school dance, a group of girls recalls exploring each other's bodies in the locker room. A grown woman studies relationship magazines to help decode her complicated nine-year-old boyfriend. A retired Richard Nixon, lamenting his wife's aging body, flirts with an admirer while sipping Scotch on the beach and dreaming of Jackie Kennedy. A lonely spinster nurtures stray cats until she receives a visit not from her Indonesian crush but from Animal Control. A band of misfits living in a roaming RV survives on road kill and stolen goods.

"By turns crass and tender, heartbreaking and devastatingly funny, her stories expose a world full of characters seemingly driven by desperation, but in the end, they're the ones who get the last laugh".

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #417

May 11, 2011, 9 days after the Osama bin Laden raid, Sara, a single mother living quietly in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, is thrown under media spotlight when Jason, her Navy SEAL son, has gone missing in action on a top-secret mission.

In Lea Carpenter's Eleven Days *, "a powerful and lean, astonishing first novel", a series of flashbacks and letters from Jason, we learn about a young and care-free Sara's love affair with Jason's father - an older career diplomat who was killed; Sara's dream for the Ivy-bound Jason with a career on the Hill in his father's footstep.

The events of 9/11 changed all that. Jason enlisted.

Through his letters home, we sense a strong, compassionate leader who is wise beyond his years and modest about his abilities., and it is these extraordinary qualities that made him a perfect match for the most dangerous assignments.

"(W)ith equal measures of intellect and heartbreak... Lea Carpenter, a dazzling new talent with the kind of strong and distinctive voice that comes along all too rarely, has given us a thrilling and unforgettable story."

"A powerful first novel and inside look into the making of a Navy SEAL and a portrait of the strength and courage of both mother and son."

"Among the smartest of the batch of recent American war novels".

For a insider's look at the making of a SEAL, try Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown by Eric Blehm.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #416 - War Bonds

In I'll be Seeing You *, January 1943, Glory Whitehall, a young expectant mother with a toddler pulls a name out of a pail in a 4-H meeting and impulsively writes to the "Garden Witch" - Rita Vincenzo, the sensible wife of a professor in Iowa with a love of gardening. Worlds apart Glory (New England Society) and Rita, (from immigrant families, constantly struggles to make ends meet), they share however, the powerful bond of being at the home front, watching, waiting and worrying about love ones fighting overseas.

Over the course of 2 years, their correspondence brings comfort and encouragement against the tides of loneliness and anxiety as they share their most intimate secrets, hopes and fears, indiscretions and transgression, and recipes. Connected across the country by the lifeline of the written word, each woman finds her life profoundly altered by the other's unwavering support.

Authors Suzanne Hayes (Glory) and Loretta Nyhan (Rita) never met. They found each other on writers' blogs and collaborated seamlessly to give us a deeply moving novel filled with unforgettable characters and grace, a celebration of the strength of friendship.

Michigan native Jessica Brockmole's epistolary novel Letters from Skye * spans across two continents and two world wars to capture the love stories of two generations.

In the remote Isle of Skye, 24 yr.-old Elspeth Dunn, a published poet, is astonished to receive a fan letter from an American college student, David Graham. They find sharing their favorite books, wildest hopes, and deepest secrets easy and natural. Friendship blossoms into love as World War I engulfs Europe and David volunteers on the Western front.

Alternating with letters between Elspeth and David are ones between Margaret and Paul - the RAF pilot she is in love with, and those with her mother, who on the eves of World War II warns her against seeking love in wartime, an admonition Margaret doesn't understand. (Ah! the savvy reader has an inkling!) Then, after a bomb rocks their home, Margaret's mother disappears. With a single letter found among the debris as clue, Margaret sets out to find her mother, and the truth of what happened to her family long ago.

"Sparkling with charm and full of captivating period detail, Letters from Skye is a testament to the power of love to overcome great adversity".

Jessica Brockmole spent several years living in Scotland. The idea for the novel came on a long drive from the Isle of Skye to Edinburgh.

Readalikes: Elizabeth Berg's Dream When You're Feeling Blue and Sarah Blake's The Postmistress, and Kristina McMorris' Letters from Home.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #415 - What Would You Do in a Do-Over?

In award-winning journalist Stephen Kiernan''s gripping and poignant literary thriller - The Curiosity * * deep in the Arctic circle, Dr. Kate Philo and her exploration team is searching for marine creatures embedded in icebergs that they can reanimate, and discovery the body of a man buried deep in the ice. With great care, Kate is able to successfully reanimate their discovery back in a Boston lab.

Alternating with Kate's narrative is that of Jeremiah Rice. As he begins to regain his memories, the team learns that he was a Massachusetts judge and the last thing he remembers is falling overboard into the Arctic Ocean in 1906.

As "Subject One" of his Lazarus Project, greedy Erastus Carthage, who funded the expedition, sees it as a breakthrough in the lucrative field of cryogenics. While the clock is ticking, Jeremiah's new life is slipping away, and religious extremists are staging public protests, Kate must decide how far she is willing to go to protect the man she has come to love.

"(S)mart, heady, and irresistible", Kiernan gets every element right in this breakneck, entertaining, and thought-provoking tale about time, mortality, the ethics of science, and the meaning of life. The film rights were instantly sold."

Readers interested in the fantastic multiple realities would enjoy the latest from Andrew Sean Greer - The Impossible Lives of Greta Wells * , a rapturously romantic story of a woman who finds herself transported to the other lives she might have lived.

After a series of personal tragedies, Greta Wells undergoes electroshock therapy for severe depression, only to finds herself repeatedly sent to 1918, 1941, and back to the present.

Whisked from the gas-lit streets and horse-drawn carriages of the West Village to a martini-fueled lunch at the Oak Room, in these other worlds, Greta is united with love ones and those who would eventually betray her.

"In this spellbinding novel,...each reality has its own losses, its own rewards; each extracts a different price. Which life will she choose as she wrestles with the unpredictability of love and the consequences of even her most carefully considered choices?"

* = starred review
* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #414 - Spectacular Crimes, Foreign Climes

The Abomination * * is Book 1 of Jonathan Holt's Carnivia Trilogy, a propulsive tale of murder, corruption, and international intrigue set in 2 Venices, the modern physical world and its virtual counterpart.

Captain Kat Tapo must unravel a dark conspiracy linking the CIA and the Catholic Church when the Carabinieri fish a woman's body out of the icy water, dressed in the sacred robes of a Catholic priest - a desecration that is known as the Abomination. When another murder victim is discovered, a connection develops between Kat's case and an investigation being conducted by an American army lieutenant, Holly Boland, who is on the trail of classified documents that could reveal CIA involvement in inciting civil war in the Balkans. Throw in a computer wizard who has created a virtual Venice - Carnivia.com, which has become a repository for every sort of secret— - sexual, political, ­religious, —and you have a multistranded conspiracy thriller with plenty of pop.

"(A) beautifully complicated thriller... (a) brilliant blend of fascinating story lines, serious issues, impeccable research, gripping intrigue, and engaging characters, ... eminently satisfying from start to finish." Did someone mention Dan Brown?

The Square of Revenge * * is the English-language debut of Flemish crime writer Pieter Aspe (translated by Brian Doyle), set in the idyllic medieval city of Bruges.

When the wealthy and powerful Ludovic Degroof's jewelry store is broken into, nothing is stolen, but millions in jewels have been dissolved in aqua regia, an acid so strong it could melt gold. The only clue found is a scrap of paper on which a strange square has been drawn. Inspector Pieter Van In and the new DA Hannelore Martens find themselves unraveling a complex web of enigmatic Latin phrase, generations of sordid family secrets, a priceless collection of art.

"This best-selling European series...(with) its fair share of mayhem and intrigue but with little blood spilled, maintains a fast pace, a light touch, and a joy in the telling." For fans of the noir comedy In Bruges (2008), and Georges Simenon's Maigret series.

Professional translator of English-language fiction into Spanish, Antonio Hill's debut thriller The Summer of Dead Toys is already a bestseller in Spain.

A riveting crime thriller set during a sultry Barcelona summer, Inspector Hector Salgado, recently returned from a forced "holiday" is assigned to investigate the accidental death of a college student in one of the ritzier neighborhoods. As Salgado follows a trail that will lead him deep into the underbelly of Barcelona's high society, he comes face to face with dangerous criminals, long-buried secrets, and, of course, his own past.

"Gripping, sophisticated, and wickedly entertaining". "Reminiscent of Ian Rankin's Inspector John Rebus, or Jo Nesbø's Harry Hole series as crime fiction fans explore the gritty side of another European city."

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #413 - Girls Rule

Actress Dagmara Dominczyk recently shared in a New York Times interview that "Those who know me know I love to write. Those who know me a little bit know I’m an actress. Those who don’t know me know I’m married to Patrick Wilson.”

In her debut novel The Lullaby of Polish Girls * the narrative follows the friendship of three women from their youthful days in Poland at the height of the Solidarity movement, to their complicated, not-quite-successful adult lives.

Anna and her parents lived among the Brooklyn immigrant community as political refugees. At twelve, she is sent back to Kielce to visit her grandmother, and over subsequent summers, develops intense friendships with two local girls - the ”brash and beautiful Justyna and desperately awkward Kamila. Told in alternate voices, it captures the joys and insecurities of coming-of-age, and the more heartbreaking struggles of hardship, marriage, and identity in womanhood.

Partly set in the Polish enclave of Wyandotte, Michigan, the film rights to this cinematic story has been sold. Let's hope they will film on location. Recommended for fans of Gary Shteyngart's The Russian Debutante's Handbook, and other modern novels of the expatriate experience in America. For a charming tale of growing up in a Polish American household, try Suzanne Strempek Shea's Hoopi Shoopi Donna.

Anne-Marie Casey, a former script editor and producer of prime-time British television drama delights readers on both sides of the Atlantic with her debut novel No One Could Have Guessed the Weather. (Released as An Englishwoman in New York across the pond).

Forced to give up her posh life and move to a tiny Manhattan apartment when her husband loses his job, Lucy unexpectedly falls in love with her new home and forges close friendships with three women who are also struggling with the disparities between the ambitions of their youth and middle age.

Inspired by her time living in Manhattan, "it's spot-on observant, laugh-out-loud funny, yet laced with kindness through and through."

"(S)ubversively charming". "Each chapter feels like a well-composed short story, and the collected whole is fresh and bright with characters that defy expectations. Clever and witty: the best kind of summer book."

A readalike for Meg Waite Clayton's The Wednesday Sisters, and the latest by Elizabeth Berg - Tapestry of Fortunes.

* = Starred review

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