Fabulous Fiction Firsts #207

“A heartbreaking affair, an unsolved murder, an explosive romance: Welcome to summer on the Cape”. Beach read, you think? Oh, but Holly LeCraw’s The Swimming Pool** is much, much more. (Not to be confused with the equally scintillating French film of the same title.)

Jed McClatchey is puzzled by a bathing suit hidden in a closet at the family’ summer home at Mashantum. He remembers seeing it seven years ago on Marcella Atkinson, lounging around their pool. He was a college student then and she, part of his parent’s country club set, was exotic, beautiful and everyone’s secret crush.

In the intervening years, Jed and Callie, his sister suffered unspeakable losses : their mother was murdered and their father Cecil, a prime suspect, died without being charged. On impulse, Jed tracks down the divorced Marcella, and sets in motion the rippling effect that will shatter the fragile veneer of stability for both families, exposing a complex web of secrets and betrayal.

This "astonishingly well-crafted, completely compelling” debut is at once intense, gripping and passionate. You won’t stop until you get to the stunning conclusion.

May we also suggest: The Castaways by Elin Hilderbrand for the summer colony setting and illicit romance; and Summer People by Marge Piercy for the psychological drama and character study.

For more beach reads this coming season, stay tuned.

** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #206 : Let's meet the girls

Inspired by a real event, Heide Durrow's first novel, The Girl Who Fell from the Sky * won the 2008 Bellwether Prize for best fiction manuscript addressing issues of social justice.

As this measured and sorrowful tale unfolds, the girl – Rachel has come to live with her grandmother in a mostly black community of Portland, Oregon. Light-skinned and blue-eyed (thanks to her Danish mother), Rachel is the only survivor of a family tragedy – her mother having thrown her children off a roof, jumped to her death. We watch as Rachel, smart, disciplined, and self-possessed, endures her grief and confronts her identity as a biracial woman in a world that wants to see her as either black or white.

Meanwhile in Chicago, young Jamie, a witness to the rooftop incident, re-lives the horrific event in his mind constantly while enduring even worse fate in the hands of his prostitute mother.

As the child of an African American father and a Danish mother, Durrow brings piercing authenticity to this provocative "family saga of the toxicity of racism and the forging of the self”. It succeeds as both a modern coming-of-age tale and relevant social commentary. (Check out the author's amazing family album) .

In Ali Shaw’s charming debut The Girl with Glass Feet, young Ida Maclaird returns to remote St. Hauda’s Land because she is strangely, and slowly turning to glass. There she meets Midas Crook, a lonely islander who prefers to see the world through his camera lens. As Ida and Midas search for the mysterious scientist who might hold the cure to Ida's affliction, they stumble onto mysteries from the past that further bind them together.

Inventive and richly visual, a fable of young lovers on a quest, Girl combines magic realism and the conventions of a romance. Enchanting, melancholic yet whimsical. Totally captivating. Shortlisted for the 2009 Costa First Novel Award and longlisted for the Guardian First Book Award.

Ali Shaw is a graduated of Lancaster University and has since worked as a bookseller and at Oxford’s Bodleian Library.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #205

Marina Endicott’s Good to a Fault** is a novel that probes “the moral and emotional minefield of heroic Samaritan acts”. When forty-something divorced Clara Purdy plows into the Gage family car; she could not have imagined its impact (pun not intended).

Thankfully, no one is seriously hurt but Lorraine Gage’s medical attention reveals advanced cancer, and the rest of the homeless Gages (minus Clayton who takes off for parts unknown) are invited into the guilt-ridden Clara’s empty house and quiet circumscribed world.

Domestic chaos mixes with joy as Clara cares for the three young children and learns to tolerate cantankerous Grandma. Unexpected support from neighbors and relatives rally around her and Clara even finds the strength to begin, at least tentatively, a new relationship.

Good marks Canadian writer Endicott’s U.S. debut and is the 2009 winner of a Commonwealth Writers Prize. Reviewers considered her a talent to watch and praised her “deft and winsome touch” in handling provocative issues. For readers of Anne Tyler, Elizabeth Berg and Anita Shreve. “An enchanting and poignant novel”.

** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #204

This spring, a pair of debut novelists from the Midwest offer fictional biographies of two beloved 19th century literary figures, and breathe romance into their lonely lives.

In The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott, Kelly O'Connor McNees draws on biographical information to imagine a young Louisa at Walpole N.H. in the summer of 1855, where she finds that her growing affection (which she tried to deny) for charming (and wealthy) Joseph Singer is eagerly returned. Their romance is cut short by the announcement of Joseph’s engagement to an heiress. Family tragedies, disappointment and a desire for independence take Louisa back to Boston where eventually her literary career blossoms.

Kelly O’Connor McNees is born and raised in Michigan. She now calls Chicago home. A most apropos quote from her website beautifully evokes her heroine's lament:

“Don't laugh at the spinsters, dear girls, for often very tender, tragical romances are hidden away in the hearts that beat so quietly under the sober gowns.”
~ Louisa May Alcott (Little Women)

Romancing Miss Brontë by Juliet Gael captures the emotional life of Charlotte Bronte during the last decade of her life, and shortly after the publication of Jane Eyre. Remaining lonely in spite of her literary celebrity, Charlotte Bronte endures unrequited love, first for her French professor and later for her publisher, while caring for her aging father. When his brash curate, Arthur Bell Nichols, reveals his long-time secret love for her, Charlotte must decide between a marriage lacking the passion displayed in her novels or a single life.

“Gael makes a valiant attempt to blend fact with fiction as she transports readers to 19th-century England”, capturing the passions, hopes, dreams, and sorrows of literature’s most famous sisters. The author was raised in the Midwest. She has lived abroad for more than fifteen years, primarily in Paris, where she worked as a screenwriter. She now makes her home in Florence, Italy.

For further reading, may we suggest:

Louisa May Alcott : the woman behind Little Women by journalist Harriet Reisen - an account of the life of LMA in context of her works, all of which are to some extent autobiographical. (Reisen also wrote the script for the PBS documentary on Alcott).

Becoming Jane Eyre by Sheila Kohler, - a beautifully imagined tale of the Bronte sisters and the writing of Jane Eyre.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #203

"Even as the Vietnam War recedes into the past, the despair, confusion, and mythology it generated retains a grip on our culture" writes the Library Journal reviewer. This spring publishing season, two big, bold and marvelous debut novels about the war deserve a spot on everyone's reading list and they couldn't be more different or more compelling.

Chronologically, Karl Marlantes' Matterhorn : a novel of the Vietnam War** comes first. The narrative unfolds on the front line in 1969 Vietnam as Waino Mella, a young lieutenant leads his squad to take out an enemy gun nest. New orders send the squad on jungle missions murderous for the deprivation, incessant monsoons, treacherous terrain, endless ambushes and the deadly exposure to Agent Orange.

This "realistic, in-the-trenches look at war", by a decorated veteran (30 years in the making) is dense and vivid - especially the excellent battle scenes. But what is memorable are the characters - their personal struggles and divisions. magnified by their environment while trying to stay true to their purpose. A grand addition to the genre.

Debut novelist Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters** captures the wrenching chaos of war as an American combat photographer finds herself torn between the love of two men.

In 1975, as the North Vietnamese army advances on to Saigon, Helen Adams must take leave of a war she is addicted to and a devastated country she has come to love. In a drama of devotion and betrayal, Helen is caught between her lover Linh, a Vietnamese who must grapple with his own conflicted loyalties, and Sam, her fiercest competitor and true friend. " A stunning novel of passion, duty and ambition among the ruins of war".

** = Starred reviews

March Books to Film (and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #202)

The latest adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is based on the perennial classic by Lewis Carroll.
This time, 17 year old Alice returns to the whimsical world she first encountered as a young girl, reuniting with her childhood friends, and embarking on a fantastical journey to find her true destiny and end the Red Queen’s reign of terror.

For a intimate perspective of the real Alice, try debut novelist Melanie Benjamin’s fictional biography in Alice I Have Been, as Alice Liddell looks back on a remarkable life, from a pampered childhood in Oxford to difficult years as a widowed mother, and how she became immortalized through a problematic relationship with the author.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is based on the first of Stieg Larsson's international bestselling Millennium trilogy, in which a disgraced journalist and a troubled young female computer hacker investigate the mysterious disappearance of an industrialist’s niece.

Forty years ago, Harriet Vanger disappeared from a family gathering on the island owned and inhabited by the powerful Vanger clan. Her body was never found, yet her beloved uncle is convinced it was murder and that the killer is a member of his own tightly knit but dysfunctional family.
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The Ghost Writer is based on The Ghost by Robert Harris. It stars Ewan McGregor, Pierce Brosnan with Roman Polanski directing.

When a successful British ghost writer agrees to complete the memoirs of former British Prime Minister, his agent assures him it's the opportunity of a lifetime. But the project seems doomed from the start. Before long he begins to uncover clues suggesting a dark secret linking the PM to the CIA. (See The New York Times review).

The novel The Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran is adapted for the motion picture starring Matt Damon as Chief Warrant Officer Roy Miller, a rogue U.S. Army officer assigned to hunt down Saddam’s WMD, who must wade through faulty intelligence and high level Washington cover-ups before war escalates in an unstable region.

The Last Song is based on the bestselling novelist Nicholas Sparks’s latest novel.

This tearjerker is set in a small Southern beach town where an estranged father gets a chance to spend the summer with his reluctant teenaged daughter. He tries to reconnect with her through the only thing they have in common --- music, in a story of family, friendship, secrets and salvation, along with first loves and second chances.

Forest Whitaker and Jude Law star in Repo Men, a sc-fi thriller adapted from a novel by Eric Garcia (originally published as The Repossession Mambo).

Human lives have been extended and improved through highly sophisticated and expensive mechanical organs created by a company called The Union. But if you don't pay your bill, The Union sends its highly skilled repo men to take back its property. Remy is one of the best organ repo men in the business, until he too, find himself fitted with the company's top-of-the-line heart-replacement...as well as a hefty debt.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #201

Zoe Fishman's Balancing Acts is timely, warm-fuzzy, and it strikes the right balance in exploring the themes of friendship and self-empowerment.

Fishman is timely for taking on yoga as a lifestyle as well as a cultural phenomenon among the young urban professionals. Recent New York Times articles discussed yoga being the "must-have" amenity in any self-respecting hotel chains in Rolling Out the Yoga Mat. In When Chocolate And Chakras Collide – yoga for foodies sessions are not just popular in NYC, they are coming to a restaurant near you.

Many attribute yoga's popularity to the harsh economy and the disillusionment of the dot-com generation. (See Hard Times are Jamming the Ashrams). In Balancing Acts when Charlie decides to leave her high-paying job as a Wall Street banker to open her own yoga studio, her biggest worry is finding enough customers to keep her business afloat. At her college's 10-year reunion, she reconnects with Naomi, Sabine, and Bess and signs them up for beginning yoga. Many shared oms and Adho Mukha Svanasanas later, they learn to lean on their friendship and newly found confidence as they deal with heartbreaks, disappointments and make positive changes in their lives.

"Fishman combines humor and brutal honesty as she keeps four story lines going and tracks the growing friendship among the women". A debut not to be missed. (Read an interview with Zoe). Zoe Fishman has strong ties to the Ann Arbor community. We are hoping for an author visit this fall.

Readalikes: A Fortunate Age and Everyone is Beautiful for the female friendship/reunion elements. How to be Single and Smart Girls Like Me for single girl/self-empowerment issues.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #200

In Danielle Trussoni's contemporary epic fantasy Angelology**, Sister Evangeline, a 23 year-old nun at the convent of the Franciscan Sister of Perpetual Adoration in upstate New York is drawn into the 1000-year old conflict between the Society of Angelologists and the beautiful, powerful, and cruel, half-human-half-angel Nephilim when she comes across letters between philanthropist Abigail Rockefeller and the late mother superior, referring to "an ancient artifact" - an article the Nephilim are desperate to claim.

The imaginative multilayer plot; the circuitous unfolding of Evangeline's personal connections to the Angelologists; captivating characters real and imagined; scholarly blending of biblical and mythical lore; rich historical references; seductive imagery; treachery, mystery and adventure make for an engrossing and entertaining read.

Film rights to Sony Pictures with Will Smith's Overbrook Entertainment producing. Rumor has it that Trussoni is at work on a sequel. Can't get here soon enough for me. (I won't spoil it for you though).

Comparison to The Da Vinci Code is inevitable but more appropriately would be Katherine Neville's The Eight; and Kate Mosse's Labyrinth.

Coincidentally, Trussoni, a graduate of University of Wisconsin and the Iowa Writers' Workshop now resides in the Languedoc region (France) where Labyrinth is set. Her memoir Falling Through the Earth was named one of the Ten Best Books of 2006 by The New York Times.

** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #199

On virtually every "must read" list of 2010, Paul Doiron's The Poacher's Son*** is an outstanding debut due out in April (already on order, heavy demand is expected, and more importantly, the holds are quietly building). Early readers (I counted 6) - all agreed that this is indeed, a fabulous fiction first!

At the heart of this provocative action/mystery is a father-son relationship. Mike Bowditch, a rookie game warden is surprised to find a cryptic message on his answering machine from his estranged father Jack, a brutal drunken womanizer, legendary woodsman and game poacher. It turns out Jack is the prime suspect in a double murder involving a cop and a timber executive. As evidence and suspicion mount against Jack, Mike risks his job, his honor, and his future with the woman he loves to try to clear his father's name.

Down East editor-in-chief Doiron takes a provocative look at the ties between fathers and sons, unconditional love, and Maine's changing landscape in his outstanding debut. Fans of C.J. Box's Joe Pickett novels, and Nevada Barr's Anna Pigeon novels will appreciate the wilderness setting and the suspense. Social issue-driven mystery fans might ruminate on progress versus tradition, duty versus loyalty, and expectations versus desires. The first in a projected series, readers would be pleased to know that the next adventure with Mike Bowditch is just over the horizon.

*** = Starred reviews in Kirkus Reviews, Library Journal, Publishers Weekly

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #198

Helen Simonson's Major Pettigrew's Last Stand*** is an oddity in today's publishing trend and that's a GOOD thing. (No vampires, werewolves or angels, and no lost religious relics).

In picturesque Edgecombe St. Mary, a small village in the English countryside, for generations the Pettigrews pride themselves on services to Queen and country, honor, and decorum, as much as they draw comfort from a proper cup of tea. But at 67, Major Ernest Pettigrew (retired) finds he must redefine what it is to be "proper" and where “duty“ lays.

"Wry, courtly, opinionated" and recently widowed, Ernest finds it hard to fill his days attending to his domestic routines and fighting off the unwanted attention of the well-meaning busybodies. The unexpected friendship with a Pakistani shopkeeper in the village both surprises and delights him – and sets tongues wagging.

Major introduces to readers one of the most endearing characters coming out of British fiction for quite some time. Debut novelist Simonson's sharply observant, hilarious at times, charming comedy of manners (a homage to Austen and Trollope) illuminates and entertains. A well-crafted plotline, complete with references to news headlines, societal and cultural realities adds drama and relevance for the contemporary audience yet rendering it timeless by addressing the universal virtues of love, honor and family. New!!!! (Author interview)

If you think 60something guys make uninspiring protagonists, Helen Simonson just proved you wrong. And Anne Tyler too, in her latest Noah’s Compass*** - a wise, gently humorous, and deeply compassionate novel about a schoolteacher, who has been forced to retire at sixty-one, coming to terms with “what is” and reclaiming what he let slip away. The lesson here.... it's never too late.

*** Starred Reviews

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