Fabulous Fiction Firsts #550

An international bestseller, first published in German in March 2012, Death in Brittany * * by Jean-Luc Bannalec (a pseudonym) introduces the first case of Commissaire Georges Dupin.

At the height of the tourist season, Commissaire Georges Dupin, the cantankerous Parisian transplant to the coastal town of Concarneau, is dragged from his morning croissant and coffee to the village of Pont-Aven, where the 91-year-old hotelier Pierre-Louis Pennec has been found murdered in his restaurant.

Dupin and his team identify five principal suspects, amony them a rising political star, a longtime friend of the victim, and a well-respected art historian. The case is further complicated when a second death occurs and a painting (perhaps a genuine second version of Gauguin's famous Vision After the Sermon) disappears from Pennec's hotel. As Dupin delves further into the lives of the victims and the suspects, he uncovers a web of secrecy and silence in this picture-perfect seaside village that once played host to Paul Gauguin and other post-Impressionist painters in the 19th century, members of the loosely connected Pont-Aven School.

"Dupin is fascinating to watch - he's both cranky and enthusiastic... The star of the mystery, though, is Brittany. Bannalec feeds the reader with intriguing bits of history (for example, Bretons are descended from the Celts, who fled Britain during the Anglo-Saxon invasions) and culture, along with bracing glimpses of centuries-old stone buildings, river banks, and the sea."

For mystery fans who enjoyed the Commissaire Jean-Baptiste Adamsberg series by Fred Vargas; the Chief Magistrate Antoine Verlaque series by M.L. Longworth, set in charming and historic Aix-en-Provence; and Martin Walker's delightful Bruno Courreges series set in the fictional town of St Denis, in the picturesque Perigord region of rural France - featuring the consummate cook and locavore who happens to be the Chief of Police.

* * = 2 starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #549

"A literary thriller", Dragonfish * * * by Whiting Award winner Vu Tran is the "nuanced and elegiac, noirish first novel" of an assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Chicago.

Robert Ruen, an Oakland (CA) cop with an anger management issue is forced at gunpoint to travel to Las Vegas in order to help find Suzy, his Vietnamese ex-wife who has disappeared from her new husband, Sonny, a violent Vietnamese businessman, smuggler and gambler. As Robert pursues Suzy through the sleek and seamy gambling dens of Las Vegas, shadowed by Sonny's sadistic son, "Junior," he realizes how little he knows of her - from her perilous escape from war-torn Vietnam, to the dangers and hazards in a Malaysian refugee camp where she first met Sonny.

Parallel to Robert's investigation is a secondary narrative in the form of letters to a daughter Suzy abandoned decades ago, throwing light on a woman debilitated by sorrow and haunted by ghosts and guilt.

"Vu Tran takes a strikingly poetic and profoundly evocative approach to the conventions of crime fiction in this supple, sensitive, wrenching, and suspenseful tale of exile, loss, risk, violence, and the failure to love."

"A superb debut novel…that takes the noir basics and infuses them with the bitters of loss and isolation peculiar to the refugee and immigrant tale. " (Maureen Corrigan, Fresh Air). Also check out this week's The New York Times Book Review for Chris Abani's review (and podcast), whose The Secret History of Las Vegas would be an interesting readalike.

Vu Tran will be participating in the Suspenseful Reads panel at this year's Kerrytown Bookfest. September 13, at 2:45 at the Kerrytown Concert House.

* * * = 3 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #548 - “I don't believe an accident of birth makes people sisters or brothers. It makes them siblings, gives them mutuality of parentage. Sisterhood and brotherhood is a condition people have to work at.” ~ Maya Angelou

The Lake Season "sparkles with wry wit, sweet romance, and long-kept family secrets", is the first adult fiction by YA author Hannah Roberts McKinnon.

Iris Standish arrives at her childhood lakeside home in the midst of the whirlwind of activities in preparation for her sister Leah's wedding, just when her own marriage to a high-power lawyer is coming apart. As Iris work through how her carefully-constructed life spins out of control while helping Leah with the preparations for her wedding, both learn more about themselves and each other than they ever thought possible.

"McKinnon’s voice is sharp and evocative…Making use of a gorgeous setting and serious themes, this novel rises above a flock of fluffier beach reads."

The Second Sister by Marie Bostwick, is her first stand-alone (from her Cobbled Court Quilts series) in many years.

Political campaigner Lucy Toomey’s hard work is about to pay off now that her candidtae is entering the White House. But when her estranged older sister, Alice, unexpectedly dies, Lucy is drawn back to Nilson’s Bay, her small, close-knit, Wisconsin hometown. To meet the terms of Alice’s eccentric will, Lucy must take up residence in her sister’s cottage, and over time, begins to see the town, and Alice’s life, anew.

"Bostwick depicts the mental and emotional struggle Lucy undertakes as she grieves a sister she never truly knew and weighs small-town life against the bustle of Washington, D.C."

Whiskey & Charlie by Annabel Smith is (a) "sharp perceptive (debut) novel about family and forgiveness."

Like most identical twins, (William) Whiskey and Charlie were thick as thieves as children though they were polar opposites. By the time they reach adulthood, they are estranged. Charlie is repulsed by Whiskey's flashy ad-executive lifestyle and his impulsive marriage to the lovely Rosa. But when a freak accident puts Whiskey in a coma, Charlie is forced to face the fact he may never speak to his brother again.

"Whiskey and Charlie is a wise, clever exploration of making mistakes and facing up to them, of sibling rivalry, the damage it can do, and the ways family can make us whole."

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #547

The industry buzz on Kitchens of the Great Midwest * by TV producer (The History Channel and the Discovery Channel) J. Ryan Stradal has been relentless for weeks. The latest is the review in The New York Times. (Also check out the reviews in the L.A. Times and the Petoskey News where a pivotal scene is set).

Eleven year-old Eva Thorvald does not fit in - not with her hard-working, well-meaning but unsophisticated parents or the kids at school. She finds comradery in her cool cousin Randy who has a troubled history with the law, and solace in the prized hydroponic chocolate habaneros she cultivates in her closet. When her ingenious attempt to even the score with the bullies lands her in hot water, she bolts for the big city (Evanston, IL) where her cousin Braque is a college student. Eventually she would become the star chef behind a legendary and secretive pop-up supper club, and in the process, comes face to face with the secret her loving family tried to shield her from.

"Each chapter in J. Ryan Stradal’s startlingly original debut tells the story of a single dish and character, at once capturing the zeitgeist of the Midwest, the rise of foodie culture, and delving into the ways food creates community and a sense of identity. By turns quirky, hilarious, and vividly sensory, Kitchens of the Great Midwest is an unexpected mother-daughter story about the bittersweet nature of life—its missed opportunities and its joyful surprises." Recipes included.

"(A) big-hearted, funny, and class-transcending pleasure. It’s also both a structural and empathetic tour de force, stepping across worlds in the American midwest, and demonstrating with an enviable tenderness and ingenuity the tug of war between our freedom to pursue our passions and our obligations to those we love.” ~ Jim Shepard

"(A) charming, fast-moving round robin tale of food, sensuality and Midwestern culture..." ~ Janet Fitch

Readalikes: Chez Moi by Agnes Desarthe; Mangoes and Quince by Carol Field; and La Cucina : a novel of rapture by Lily Prior.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #546 - Short Stories with a Strong Sense of Place

In the Country: Stories * * * a debut collection of stories by Manila born Mia Alvar (Harvard, Columbia) "speaks to the heart of everyone who has ever searched for a place to call home. From teachers to housemaids, from mothers to sons... (it) explores the universal experiences of loss, displacement, and the longing to connect across borders both real and imagined."

A pharmacist living in New York smuggles drugs to his ailing father in Manila, only to discover alarming truths about his family and his past. In Bahrain, a Filipina teacher drawn to a special pupil finds, to her surprise, that she is questioning her own marriage. A college student leans on her brother, a laborer in Saudi Arabia, to support her writing ambitions, without realizing that his is the life truly made for fiction. And in the title story, a journalist and a nurse face an unspeakable trauma amidst the political turmoil of the Philippines in the 1970s and 80s.

"These stories are stunning in their insight, compelling for their precise and nuanced detail, and provocative for the way they blur class lines."

Set in the pristine Connecticut suburb of Old Cranbury, The Wonder Garden * * * *, Lauren Acampora's debut collection of interwoven stories "wields prose with the precision of a scalpel, insightfully dissecting people's desperate emotions and most cherished hopes."

A home inspector undergoing a bitter divorce tries to dissuade a couple from buying their dream home, unable to bear the sight of their optimism about the future. A disturbed businessman becomes obsessed with the idea of viewing his wife's brain surgery while inside the operating room. A young, pregnant wife cannot believe the advertising executive that she married now wants to chuck his career and heed the call of his spirit animal.

"A clear-eyed lens into the strange, human wants of upper-class suburbia."

Just released is The State We're In: Maine Stories *, the latest by the multiple prize-winning master of the short form, Ann Beattie. Though many of these 15 loosely linked stories are set in Maine (where Beattie now lives), what unites them is more than geography. "Riveting, witty, sly, idiosyncratic, and bold, these stories describe a state of mind, a manner of being..."

"Beattie is a master at depicting the peculiarly painful valor necessary for contending with troubled family members, spouses, lovers, neighbors, even pets. She is also that rarest of beings, a brilliantly comic literary writer. Some of her hilarity is circumstantial... Most often, it's her skirmishing dialogue that makes us laugh out loud."

If you like these short story collections, check out Publishers Weekly's The 10 Best Short Story Collections You've Never Read.

* = starred review
* * * = 3 starred reviews
* * * * = 4 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #545 - "I have heard the mermaids singing each to each. I do not think that they will sing to me ..." ~ T.S. Eliot

"Dazzling...[a] quirky, raucous, and bewitching family saga", high praise by Sara Gruen for Erika Swyler's debut novel Book of Speculation, and rightly so. I simply couldn't put it down.

After his younger sister Enola runs off to read tarot cards for a traveling carnival, cash-strapped librarian Simon Watson lives alone in the decrepit family home that he watches nervously as it slowly crumbles toward the Long Island Sound. An old bound journal arrives at his doorstep one late June, almost at the same time his sister returns, restless and secretive. Fragile and water damaged, the book is a log from the owner of a traveling carnival in the 1700s, who reports strange and magical things, including the drowning death of a circus mermaid. Since then, generations of "mermaids" in Simon's family have drowned, always on July 24, including his mother.

As his friend Alice looks on with alarm, Simon becomes increasingly convinced that Enola will be the next victim of the family curse, and the answer must lie in the book.

"Debut author Swyler creates a melancholy world with hints of magic at the edges... Fans of historical novels, especially titles with circus themes or touched with a hint of the supernatural such as Erin Morgenstern's The Night Circus, Katharine Dunn's Geek Love, or Katharine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, won't want to leave this festival."

The Mermaid's Child by Jo Baker - the acclaimed author of Longbourn brings us the magical story of a young girl in search of her mother...who her father believes just might be a mermaid. Malin Reed, always odd and awkward never quite fits in. When her father dies, she takes to the road in search of her mother. Apprenticed to a series of strange and wonderful characters, Malin embarks on a grueling journey that crosses oceans and continents - she even disguises herself as a boy in order to get a position on a slaving ship. Misadventures, rescues (by an eccentric librarian), icebergs and pirates, Malin's journey eventually comes to a fitting end.

This pungent early novel, only now available in the U.S, (is) "beautifully written and hauntingly strange,...a remarkable piece of storytelling, and an utterly unique work of fantasy..."

The Mermaid's Sister by Carrie Anne Noble, set in a mythical Pennsylvania mountain tells the story of three foundlings taken in by Auntie, a village wise woman. When Clara realizes that her sister Maren, is slowly but surely turning into a mermaid, she and best friend O'Neill set out to take Maren to a new home in the sea. Adventure finds them when a traveling show kidnaps them all, and Clara must overcome her inner doubts about who she really is in order to save them all.

"Like all good fairy tales, this one touches on deeper themes of sibling rivalry, jealousy, insecurity, and questions of identity...Noble's treatment of the mermaid theme is fresh and original, and even her minor characters are beautifully depicted."

Like mermaids? You might also enjoy Mermaid : A twist on the classic tale by Carolyn Turgeon, and The Sea House by Elisabeth Gifford.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #544 - “Oh, what a tangled web we weave...when first we practice to deceive.” ~ Walter Scott

If you are still waiting around for The Girl on the Train (or just looking for the next good thriller), then I suggest you try The Truth and Other Lies * * by German screenwriter Sascha Arango. Right now, this debut is flying somewhat under the media radar but I cannot guarantee that for much longer.

Henry Hayden, best-selling author is often praised for his thrillers of "strange happenings, dark secrets, dangers lurking everywhere, and really brilliant villains". Little does the reading public know fiction resembles the truth, and that this charming, modest and generous man is a carefully constructed facade. With his mistress/editor pregnant and his wife Martha's (who is the actual writer of the novels) untimely death; his past which he has painstakingly kept hidden, is finally catching up with him. Ingeniously weaving more lies and half-truths into a story as the police close in, Henry might just survive.

"A cross between James M. Cain and Patricia Highsmith, with a wide streak of sardonic humor, this is one wicked tale."

The Hand That Feeds You by A.J. Rich, a pseudonym adopted by Amy Hempel and Jill Ciment, for their collaboration on a book their dying friend Katherine Russell Rich didn’t have time to write.(EW reveals the real story in an interview with the authors).

Morgan Prager, a criminal justice grad student returns to her Brooklyn apartment to find the mutilated corpse of her fiancé, Bennett, splayed across her bed and her beloved dogs, a Great Pyrenees, and two pit bulls, covered in blood. When she tries to locate Bennett's parents, she discovers that everything she knows of him is a lie. As the dogs face court mandate destruction, Morgan's research into Bennett's identity has taken on an urgency, especially when she finds herself on a trail littered with the bodies of other women engaged to Bennett.

"Sexy, disturbing, and highly suspenseful, this is a brilliant collaboration between two outstanding writers... who have created an emotionally and erotically charged thriller that vibrates with tension and passion."

Remember Me This Way by Sabine Durrant, a dark psychological thriller that is a departure from her chick lit. novels.

On the first anniversary of her husband Zach's death in a car crash, school librarian Lizzie Carter visits the accident scene in Cornwall for the first time only to find that someone named Xenia has left a bouquet and a love letter for Zach. Then things start being moved around and vanishing from their London house, she becomes convinced that Zach, always unstable and controlling, has faked his death and is just waiting for the right moment to kill her.

"The suspense builds with each page as secrets are revealed and the sense of menace grows at each turn. Durrant's fast-paced psychological thriller will satisfy readers who enjoyed Elizabeth Haynes's Into the Darkest Corner."

* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #543 - "Freedom Is just frosting On somebody else's Cake -- And so must be Till we Learn how to Bake.” ~ Langston Hughes

The Art of Baking Blind, a debut novel by Sarah Vaughan (Oxford, a former news reporter for The Guardian) is a MUST for fans of PBS' Great British Baking Show.

Five amateur bakers are competing to become the New Mrs. Eaden, Mrs. Eaden being Kathleen, the recently deceased wife of the upscale supermarket chain's founder and the author of the 1966 classic, The Art of Baking. The winner not only will take away £50,000 but a baking career is almost a sure thing.

Housewives Vicki, Jenny, and Karen; single dad Mike; and single mom Claire will face off at the Eaden country estate through rounds of cakes, biscuits, breads, pies and pastries, pudding, and "celebratory tea" while dealing with personal challenges and difficult family dynamics. As unlikely alliances are forged and secrets rise to the surface, they will learn, as did Mrs. Eaden before them, that while perfection is possible in the kitchen, it's very much harder in life.

"Delectable 'food porn', as one character puts it."

The Cake Therapist by award-winning cookbook author Judith Fertig brings to mind Aimee Bender's The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake.

Claire "Neely" O'Neil, a pastry chef of extraordinary talent has a unique gift. She can "taste" feelings - cinnamon makes you remember; plum is pleased with itself; orange is a wake-up call. She can also customize her creations to help her clients, whether to celebrate love, overcome fear, or mourn a devastating loss.

When she returns home to Millcreek Valley (OH) after a series of personal and business set-backs in the big city, opening her own bakery seems the perfect move, especially now that the town has become a thriving bridal district. Neely's talents for helping people through her pastry palette have always been useful, but a recurring flavor of alarming intensity signals a long-ago story involving a unique piece of jewelry begs to be told. Getting to the end of this story may be just what she needs to help herself.

"Fertig crafts a culinary tale that has as much substance as sweetness and is as pleasingly layered as Neely's signature rainbow cake. "

For readers who enjoyed The Love Goddess' Cooking School by Melissa Senate; The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister; When in Doubt Add Butter by Elizabeth Harbison; and The Glass Kitchen by Linda Francis Lee.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #542 - "Fiction and poetry are doses, medicines. What they heal is the rupture reality makes on the imagination." ~ Jeanette Winterson

What a joy it is to meander the waterways through the heart of France with The Little Paris Bookshop by Nina George, the first English translation for a bestselling German author.

Fifty year-old Monsieur Perdu watches over the other inhabitants of 27 Rue Montagnard. By day, he runs a literary apothecary on a floating barge docked along the Seine, prescribing appropriate books to (mostly willing) customers for the myriad of ailments and hardships of life. His intuition and profound knowledge of books serves him well, mending broken heart and souls, except for his own.

For twenty years he refuses to open the letter left for him by Manon, the love of his life, until the chance encounter with a new tenant stirs up emotions long buried within. Once he reads the letter, the devastating contents compel him to haul anchor, take the bookstore barge on a trip upriver to Avignon, in search of closure and forgiveness - but not before taking on an uninvited guest. His neighbor Max Jordan, a young American author with severe writer's block, is looking for fresh ideas and the perfect story, and is in need of a sanctuary from over-zealous paparazzi and adoring fans.

"The two navigate the canals of France trading books for food (The Enchanted April to a baker's daughter, and the latest John Irving to a lockkeeper's wife), engaging in adventures small and large, all against the backdrop of quaint villages and bittersweet memories."

"A charming novel that believes in the healing properties of fiction, romance, and a summer in the south of France." All aboard.

For those who enjoyed The Storied life of A. J. Fikry by Gabirelle Zevin, and The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #541 - “On my way out I was even going to shake his hand, but I remembered just in time that I'd killed a man." ~ Albert Camus, The Stranger

Algerian journalist Kamel Daoud's The Meursault Investigation * * is “(a) tour-de-force reimagining of Albert Camus's 1942 classic The Stranger, from the point of view of the mute Arab victims.” It won the Prix François Mauriac and the Prix des Cinq-Continents de la francophonie, and is a finalist for the Prix Goncourt. A feature film based on the novel is slated for release in 2017.

The narrator, Harun was the younger brother of “the Arab” killed by the infamous Meursault, the antihero of Camus’s classic novel. Seventy years after that event, Harun, who has lived since childhood in the shadow of his sibling’s memory, refuses to let him remain anonymous: he gives his brother a story and a name—Musa—and describes the events that led to Musa’s casual murder on a dazzlingly sunny beach.

Night after night, "(a)s Harun meditates on guilt, alienation, and his failed affair with Meriem, a university student, his quarrel is revealed to be not just with his mother and Meursault, but with post-Independence Algeria and God himself. Ultimately, Harun identifies more with his brother's killer than with his own zealous countrymen. "

"The novel…not only breathes new life into The Stranger; it also offers a bracing critique of post-colonial Algeria…" (The New York Times Magazine)

"Fiction with a strong moral edge."

”For its incandescence, its precision of phrase and description, and its cross-cultural significance, The Meursault Investigation is an instant classic.“ (The Guardian)

* * = 2 starred reviews

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