Fabulous Fiction Firsts #536

One of the most anticipated debut this season is The Sunlit Night * by Rebecca Dinerstein, and it does not disappoint. In the beautiful, barren landscape of the Far North, under the ever-present midnight sun, two New Yorkers unexpectedly find love and courage to take destiny into their own hands.

A year in Japan after college graduation is no longer an option for Frances when her boyfriend calls it quits and unceremoniously drops her off at a bus stop. At the postage-sized Manhattan apartment she shares with her parents and sister Sarah, there is more bad news. The painting apprenticeship at a Norwegian artist colony which she turns down earlier now seems like a godsend, never mind that there is only one artist living there - Nils, enigmatic and middle-aged, who paints only with the color yellow.

17 year-old Yasha, raised in the Russian enclave of Brighton Beach, sees his mother for the first time in a decade outside the family bakery's window, only to recognize a selfish and unreliable parent. The real heartache is losing his beloved father to heart failure on a home-coming trip to Moscow, but he is determined to carry out his father's last wish to be buried "at the top of the world".

And so Frances and Yasha meet at the Viking Museum in Lofoten, a string of islands ninety-five miles above the Arctic Circle. Their unlikely connection and growing romance fortifies them, and teaches them that to be alone is not always to be lonely, and that love and independence are not mutually exclusive.

"Funny, dark, warm, and as knowing of place as any travel book or memoir." ~ Jonathan Safran Foer

"...(a) luminous story about love, family, and the bewilderment of being young. Enchanting in every way." ~ Maggie Shipstead

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #535 - “Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again.” ~ C.S. Lewis

The Royal We * * by Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, (co-creators of one of the wittiest celebrity fashion blog, Go Fug Yourself and 2 teen novels - Spoiled and Messy), are charming readers with this modern-day Cinderella tale for adults.

Des Moines native Rebecca "Bex" Porter unlike her twin Lacey, is never one for fairy tales. As an exchange (Cornell) student at Oxford, she looks forward to "art, antiquities and history" and thus pays no attention to the "sandy-haired guy" who answers the porter's bell and who happens to be the heir to the British throne, Prince Nicholas. And when Bex can't resist falling for Nick, the person behind the prince, it propels her into a world she did not expect to inhabit, under a spotlight she is not prepared to face.

The novel opens on the eve of the most talked-about wedding of the century, Bex reflects on what she's sacrificed for love -- and exactly whose heart she may yet have to break.

"Parallels to the love story of Prince William and Kate Middleton are obvious, but the authors create their own unique and endearing characters with Bex and Nick along with an entertaining cast of characters including lovable rogue Prince Freddie, Nick's younger brother; Bex's twin, Lacey; and a bunch of colorful school chums. Royal watchers and chick-lit fans alike will delight in this sparkling tale. Pure fun." If you enjoy this debut, I bet you won't be disappointed with (the latest in the Princess Diaries series) Meg Cabot's Royal Wedding.

Minnow * *, the 2014 South Carolina First Novel Prize winner, by James McTeer II is "a memorable coming-of-age story brimming with unexpected encounters with man, beast, and nature, and some magic thrown in for good measure."

Young Minnow's father is dying of a mysterious illness. The local pharmacist points him to a local hoodoo healer Dr. Crow, thus launching him on an increasingly strange and dangerous quest that will take him deep into the South Carolina Sea Islands. There Minnow is to take soil from the grave of Sorry George, an infamous practitioner of black magic, as payment for a cure.

This compellingly dark debut full of Southern mystery and lore is inspired by the author's (a school librarian) grandfather - a sheriff of the Low Country for decades as well as a local witch doctor. A captivating crossover for teens and especially for fans of Karen Russell's beloved Ava Bigtree in Swamplandia!

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #534

London playwright and actor Jason Hewitt's debut The Dynamite Room * has been called "(a)ccomplished, resonant and surprising." ~ The Guardian.

In July 1940, 11-year-old Lydia, an evacuee in Wales tracks home to the seaside town of Grayfriar, gas mask in tow, only to find it eerily deserted. With her father and brother in active service, Lydia settles into their shuttered home to wait her mother's return. Her first night there, Lydia is awaken from her troubled sleep by an intruder - a gun-wielding, wounded German soldier in British uniform, who won't hurt Lydia as long as she does not leave the house.

Over the course of six sweltering summer days, the two warily coexist in their claustrophobic confines, becoming dependent on each other for survival. Lydia soon realizes that Heiden, a Berlin cellist before the war, knows more than he should about her family; and suspects that he is plotting and preparing them for something far beyond his orders.

"In this fine balance of taut suspense and tragedy, Hewitt has created an emotionally charged character study in which he explores the loneliness, fear, hope, and shame that war visits on ordinary people."

An obvious readalike to Bette Greene's Summer of My German Soldier, but will likely appeal to those who enjoyed William Trevor's The Story of Lucy Gault; Ian McEwan's Atonement; and Pat Barker's Toby's Room.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #533

The Silver Swan by Elena Delbanco is an intimate, passionate, triumphant story of love and betrayal, centered around a Stradivarius cello and the cast of characters who lust after it.

Mariana Feldmann, only child of world-renowned cellist Alexander Feldmann, emerges as a rising star herself at nineteen and is seen as the inheritor of her father's genius. It comes to reason that Mariana expects that the Silver Swan, Feldmann's a one-of-a-kind Stradivarius will one day be hers. Upon Alexander's death, Mariana is devastated to learn that Claude Roselle, one of his students and a rising European talent about to make his New York debut, will inherit the Silver Swan. As Mariana try to understand her father's decision by getting to know Claude, their relationship quickly evolves into a passionate, if contentious, affair.

Elena Delbanco, recently retired from the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy has long been engaged in the world of classical music. Her father was the renowned cellist Bernard Greenhouse (of the Beaux Arts Trio), who owned the Countess of Stainlein ex-Paganini Stradivarius violoncello of 1707. The imagined fate of that instrument inspired this debut novel.

The author will be reading and signing at Nicola's Books on June 9th, at 7 pm.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #532 - “It's the possibility of having a dream come true that makes life interesting.” ~ Paulo Coelho

Hugo & Rose * by Bridget Foley would be the Calgon for any beleaguered housewife - the ultimate escape. For Rose though, it is a bit more complicated.

For thirty years, since a traumatic accident in childhood, Rose has the same dream every night - stranded on a deserted island with a brave boy named Hugo, having incredible adventures. These exciting dreams overshadow her waking life - that of being a suburban mother of three, married to an overworked and often absent surgeon.

When Rose stumbles across Hugo in real life, both her real and dream worlds are changed forever. This chance encounter begins a cascade of questions, lies, and a dangerous obsession that threatens to topple everything she knows.

"Debut-novelist Foley, a screenwriter, brings a cinematic sensibility to both fantastical descriptions of the dream island and depictions of the mundane real world... (this) imaginative and insightful novel will hold readers spellbound as it builds to a stunning conclusion." Would appeal to fans of Wife 22 by Melanie Gideon.

The Bookseller * by Cynthia Swanson has been called "a stunner of a debut novel, astonishingly tight and fast paced."

Denver, 1962. Cat-loving spinsterly Kitty Miller, part-owner of the floundering Sisters Bookstore leads a simple if solitary life. That is, until she starts waking up in 1963 as Katharyn Andersson, wife of architect Lars, mother of triplets, in a sleek, suburban life filled with maids and nannies, Cadillacs and cocktail parties.

As Kitty investigates her parallel worlds, she starts to doubt the choices she's made in her daytime life but she also discovers that her dream life is not as perfect as it appears. "Dexterously traversing past and present, fact and fiction, Swanson's clever first novel ingeniously explores the inventive ways the human spirit copes with trauma."

"The 1960s tone is elegant and even, and Kitty/Katharyn's journey is intriguing, redolent with issues of family, independence, friendship, and free will. This will especially resonate with fans of the movie Sliding Doors and works by Anna Quindlen and Anita Shreve."

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #531

A "propulsive" historical set among the world of early 19th c. female pugilists - The Fair Fight * * by first-time author Anna Freeman has been widely compared to The Crimson Petal and the White. It is a "raucous, intoxicating tale of courage, and self-reinvention..."

Ruth Downs was considered too unattractive to serve the clientele of the "the convent", a Bristol brothel where she was born and raised. She was saved from a life of drudgery by a natural scrappiness, witnessed in a cat-fight by George Dryer who became her patron as a professional pugilist.

Scarred by smallpox, manor-born Charlotte Sinclair, trapped in twisted power games with her scoundrel of a brother who married her off to a mean and neglectful husband, was desperate for an escape.

When the two women met, it was Charlotte who presented Ruth with an extraordinary proposition.

Drawn from historical real-life and fictional (see Author's note) "(g)amblers, drinkers, fighters, hookers; the fancy, the rowdy, the rude—Freeman does a wonderful job of spinning this furious yarn, in which the fury of women plays the lead role. Great characters and wild turns of events make this book a knockout."

The New York Times praised that The Fair Fight "breathes, shouts and swears, confident in its form and bold as brass in its execution." A new voice to watch for fans of Sarah Water's.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #530 - “You cannot swim for new horizons until you have courage to lose sight of the shore.” ~ William Faulkner

The Swimmer * marks the debut of Swedish Joakim Zander, an espionage thriller that draws enthusiastic comparison with John Le Carré, Graham Greene and vintage Robert Ludlum, in which a deep-cover CIA agent races across Europe to save the daughter he never knew.

Klara Walldeen, an EU Parliament aide in Brussels, is quickly learning how to navigate the treacherous currents of international politics and dangerous desires. Warned by a series of anonymous emails, Swedish academic Mahmoud Shammosh suspects that it is related to his probing research into The Privatization of War (think Blackwater). George Loow, an ethically challenged lobbyist is increasingly uneasy with the requests of his shadowy client. Meanwhile, in Virginia, an old spy (a one-time UM swimmer and an Olympic hopeful) hides from his past while haunted by what happened in Damascus three decades ago.

Their stories converge one stormy Christmas Eve in the Swedish archipelago, when Klara is hunted down for something she should not have seen, and the old spy is the only one who can save her.

"Skillfully moving between the past and the present, from Sweden to Syria to Washington and back again, Zander weaves an increasingly tight web of intrigue and suspense... Beyond the blood-pumping chase sequences and requisite shootouts, there is real humanity here. A compulsively readable page-turner with unexpected heart."

Girl Underwater *, a debut novel by Claire Kells demonstrates that survival is not just physical, but also mental and emotional.

The plane that carries Avery Delacorte, a competitive college swimmer home to Boston for Thanksgiving break crashes in a mountain lake in the Colorado Rockies. She survives along with teammate Colin Shea and three little boys. Faced with sub-zero temperatures, injuries and the dangers of the wilderness, Avery and Colin must rely on each other in ways they never could have imagined.

Her beleaguered recovery comes after their rescue. Avery must come to terms with the trauma in order to reconnect with the world around her. She must dig deep to reclaim her love of swimming and to recognize her heart's true desire.

Claire Kells, (M.D. The University of California) currently in residency in the Bay Area, lends realism to the story with her technical knowledge, and with "a spare, sure hand". "(M)emorable and eminently readable."

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #529 - “For the powerful, crimes are those that others commit.” ~ Noam Chomsky

M(iranda) J. Carter's fiction debut - The Strangler Vine * * is longlisted for the 2104 Bailey's Women's Prize for Fiction (formerly the Orange Prize) and a finalist for the British Crime Writers' Association John Creasey (New Blood) Dagger Award.

Calcutta, 1837. Young William Avery was broke, homesick and for months, had waited for a commission in the East India Company's army that might never come through. Then out of the blue, he was assigned a secret mission by the Company's administrator with the promise of a promotion and a return to his beloved home in Devon.

Avery was to join Jeremiah Blake, a former Company agent gone native who turned out to be a genius at languages and disguises. The pair was to search for the missing English poet Xavier Mountstuart who has been sighted at some of the most dangerous places in all of India, overrun by the Thuggees. While wildly popular with the locals as well as audience at home (Avery being an avid fan himself), it was rumored that Mountstuart's next poem would likely lift the lid on Calcutta society, exposing not only the wickedness of the Company Sahibs, their greed and their immodesty, but also that of the princely courts of the "Hindoo and Mussulman" - a personification of the twisted gray trunks called "strangler vines" that squeeze the life out of other trees.

"Meticulously researched and packed with period detail," it will appeal to historical fiction fans who love action, adventure, and intrigue, particularly those of Bernard Cornwell, David Liss, and Iain Pears. Like many, I am waiting impatiently for the promised sequel The Infidel Stain, and to pick up the trail of this unforgettable investigative pair.

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #528 - “A caregiver is changed by the culture of illness, just as one is changed by the dynamic era in which one lives." ~ Diane Ackerman

Shortlisted for the 2013 Costa First Novel Award, Meeting the English by award-winning Scottish poet Kate Clanchy brings to mind Maggie O'Farrell's Instructions for a Heatwave for the delectabe tragic/comic family drama, played out during one of London's sweltering heatwaves.

Having help nursed his single father through his final illness and worked part-time in an old people's home, 17 year-old Struan Robertson feels equipped to answer an ad for "Literary Giant seeks young man to push bathchair. Ideal 'gap year' opportunity." This brings the Cuik (Scotland) orphan south to London, into the chaotic household of Phillip Prys, playwright/novelist who recently suffered a massive stroke.

Arriving in London in the freakishly hot summer of 1989, smart but naïve Struan finds himself particularly unprepared to deal with the heat, with Phillip's two self-involved teenage children, two wives, and a literary agent who buzz about the house but too busy with their peculiar obsessions to lend a hand in Phillip's care. "As the city bakes, Struan finds himself tangled in a midsummer's dream of mistaken identity, giddying property prices, wild swimming, and overwhelming passions. For everyone, it is to be a life-changing summer."

In this "sharp-eyed satire of 1980s London...Clanchy brings to her portrait of Thatcher-era London an assured beauty of language and acid detail. The effect is that of a brilliant, multicolored fireworks display illuminating the antics of the residents of the London Zoo." Check out the full review in The Guardian, which praised this debut as "richly conceived, original and very entertaining."

For those who enjoyed The Revised Fundamentals of Caregiving by Jonathan Evison, and Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #527 - Spotlight on Canadian Debuts

These 3 noteoworthy debuts share more than geography. Two are mysteries/police procedurals; two have strong historical significance; and all are inspired by real persons and/or events.

Asylum by Jeannette De Beauvoir is set in Montreal where Martine LeDuc is the director of PR for the mayor's office. Four women are found brutally murdered and shockingly posed on park benches throughout the city. Fearing a threat to tourism, the Mayor tasked Martine to act as liaison with the police department. She is paired with a young detective, Julian Fletcher. Together they dig deep into the city's and the country's past, only to uncover a link between the four women: all were involved with the decades-old Duplessis orphanage scandal. "A complex and heartbreaking mystery."

"Meticulously researched and resounding with the force of myth" The Thunder of Giants by Toronto playwright Joel Fishbane, "blends fact and fiction in a sweeping narrative that spans nearly a hundred years. Against the backdrop of epic events, two extraordinary women become reluctant celebrities in the hopes of surviving a world too small to contain them."

In 1937, at nearly eight feet tall, Andorra Kelsey, known in Detroit as the Giant of Elsa Street, is looking for a way to escape when a Hollywood movie scout offers her the role of Anna Swan (here is the link to the Canadian Anna Swan digital archive), the celebrated Nova Scotia giantess who toured with P.T. Barnum's "Human Marvels" traveling show.

Told in parallel, while Andorra is seen as a disgrace by an embarrassed family, Anna Swan (born 1846) becomes a famed attraction as she falls in love with Gavin Clarke, a veteran of the Civil War. Both women struggle to prove to the world that they are more than the sum of their measurements. "A genial, appealing celebration of two strong, independent women; recommended for fans of historical fiction." Especially for those who enjoyed The Little Giant of Aberdeen County by Tiffany Baker.

In The Unquiet Dead * * by Ausma Zehanat Khan, Detective Esa Khatta, head of Canada's new Community Policing Section specialized in handling minority-sensitive cases, is called in to investigate the death of wealthy businessman Christopher Drayton, found at the bottom of a bluff near his home in Lake Ontario. As Esa and his partner Detective Rachel Getty dig into the background of Drayton, it is evident that this upstanding Canadian citizen is in truth, a Bosnian war criminal - Lieutenant Colonel Drazen Krstic, with ties to the Srebrenica massacre of 1995 where thousands of Muslim men, women and children were slaughtered. As Khattak and Getty interview imams and neighbors and sort out what justice really means, they are forced to navigate the lingering effects of a horrible conflict and their own broken lives.

"In her spellbinding debut, Ausma Zehanat Khan (a former law professor with a specialty in Balkan war crimes) has written a complex and provocative story of loss, redemption, and the cost of justice..." "Readers of international crime fiction will be most drawn to the story, but anyone looking for an intensely memorable mystery should put this book at the top of their list."

* * = 2 starred reviews

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