Fabulous Fiction Firsts #212

What makes a reader "perfect"?

The answer might lie somewhere in Perfect Reader*, the "sparkling, shrewd, and at times hilarious" debut by Maggie Pouncey.

Twentysomething Flora Dempsey is stunned to find herself named literary executor of her late father - a critic, an eminent scholar and college president in a small New England town. Beside the house, the family dog, Flora finds she has also inherited a manuscript of her father's erotic poems inspired by a girlfriend Flora didn't know he had, a girlfriend who wants to see them published!

In a year of grieving, Flora revisits her childhood memories of her parents' divorce, losing a best friend following a terrible accident while debating whether to publish her father's manuscript.

"Pouncey has skillfully created a portrait of small-town academia, where the relationships between reader and text are just as elusive and complex as the relationships between father and daughter, husband and wife, or between two lovers".

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #211

Perhaps this is one of the hardest blogs for me to write. I finished the book some weeks ago and have been thinking about it. I worried that whatever I write here is not going to do the book justice. My expectations were naturally high for Julie Orringer's debut novel The Invisible Bridge, coming 7 years after her prizewinning collection of short stories How to Breathe Underwater, and it did not disappoint.

This stunning and richly detailed WWII saga is not (as a lot of early readers feared) just another Holocaust novel. It opens with 22 year-old Andras Levi, a Hungarian Jew, a highly prized scholarship to study architecture in Paris and an unlikely love affair with the much older Klara, amidst the growing tide of anti-Semitism which eventually forces their return to Hungary. Throughout the hardships and injustices, Andras's love for Klara acts as a beacon. "Orringer's triumphant novel is as much a lucid reminder of a time not so far away as it is a luminous story about the redemptive power of love."

Cinematic in its settings, moving without being sentimental, "Orringer writes without anachronism, and convincingly." Don't just take my word for it, read the New York Times review.

Julie Orringer grew up in New Orleans and Ann Arbor. She is a graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and Cornell University, and was a Stegner Fellow and Marsh McCall Lecturer in the Creative Writing Program at Stanford University and the Helen Herzog Zell Visiting Professor of Creative Writing at the University of Michigan. Visit Julie's website.

**= Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #210: Fresh Asian-American Voices

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is an inspiring debut , drawn from personal experience about a young immigrant from Hong Kong, who is caught between the pressure to succeed in America, duty to her family, and her own personal desires.

An exceptional student and yet shy and proud, Kimberly Chang and her mother are tricked into back-breaking factory work and living in squalor. In simple, searing, richly detailed prose, Kwok captures the anguish of the struggle, the universal immigrant lament of not fitting in, misunderstanding and cultural disconnect that is wrenching and hilarious at times. Girl is a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love. A good book group choice with reading group guide. Don't miss the author's interesting bio..

Sonya Chung's exquisite debut Long for This World** is a multi-layered story of two brothers, distanced by time and differences. When American surgeon Han Hyun-ku unexpectedly arrives at his younger brother's home in a remote island in South Korean, he leaves behind a floundering marriage and a troubled son. His daughter, Jane, a renowned photojournalist searches for him and they are quickly absorbed into the Korean Han's household where surface tranquility masks dark and volatile undercurrents.

"Moving between landscapes and a variety of perspectives, Chung's ambitious debut explores the intricacies and aggravations of family, culture, and identity." With reading group guide as well.

Sonya Chung is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, and the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Fellowship & Residency. In fall 2010, Sonya will join the full-time faculty of the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University.

Readalikes: Typical American by Gish Jen for the Asian-American immigrant experience; and The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak for the secrets families keep; and how one "can't go home again".

** = Starred reviews

May Books to Film, Already in Theaters

Iron Man 2 is based on Marvel’s Iron Man comic series. In this sequel, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, now a famous high-tech superhero comes up against the U.S. military’s demands to control the most powerful weapon on earth -- the Iron Man suit, while being hunted by a vengeful Russian criminal with some lethal technology of his own. Meanwhile, he could no longer count on his beautiful new assistant or best friend, Rhodey who are hatching their own strange, mysterious agendas.

Letters to Juliet is adapted from Lise Friedman's Letters to Juliet: celebrating Shakespeare’s greatest heroine, the magical city of Verona, and the power of love - an enchanting love story of encountering new sparks and rekindling old flames. (The scenery isn't bad either).

When Sophie, a young American, travels to Verona, Italy -- the romantic city where Romeo first met Juliet -- she meets a group of volunteers who respond to letters written to Juliet seeking romantic advice. Sophie finds and answers a letter that has been lost for 50 years, and is stunned when its author Claire arrives in Italy with her handsome but overprotective grandson to find the man she left decades before. Fascinated by Claire's quest, Sophie joins them on an adventure through the beautiful hills of Tuscany searching for Claire's long lost Lorenzo.

Over the years, there have been various big screen and television interpretations of the legend of Robin Hood – from the recent TV series; Mel Brooks’ farcical Robin Hood Men in Tights; to Errol Flynn’s 1938 iconic The Adventures of Robin Hood. Now see Russell Crowe as a beefy Robin Hood .

Instead, fantasy and alternative history fan might opt to try Hood : The Legend Begins Anew by Stephen R. Lawhead. In this first of the King Raven Trilogy, Hood tells the story of an alternative Robin Hood. Steeped in Celtic mythology and the political intrigue of medieval Britain, the familiar tale takes on new life, fresh meaning, and an unexpected setting – “ …(a) highly imaginative, earthy adventure that has little to do with Errol Flynn but is just as rousing”.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #209

Michele Young-Stone's debut The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors** moves smoothly between parallel stories of two unlucky young lives affected by lightning strikes.

13 year-old Buckley Pitank watches as his mother, abused and worn down by a hard life, is finally looking at love and happiness, only to be fatally struck by lightning. Becca Burke, an 8 year-old lightning strike survivor must endure a volatile and unstable home life. Unknown to each other, Becca and Buckley, lonely and disaffected, spend the next 20-some year coming to grips with the aftermath of these incidents, before they inevitably cross paths through the clever conceit of the handbook in the title.

"Young-Stone is a very fine writer who has created a host of endearing losers, young, old, literate, and simple, all full of longing". A powerful, beautiful first novel. The author earned her MFA in fiction writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Once, many years ago, she was struck by lightning in her driveway. She survived.

Readers interested in the effect of lightning strikes should also look at Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures (2010). Readers interested in exploring hardship, survival, loss and hope for those left behind by a catastrophe should give Lark and Termite (2009) a try. (NPR review).

** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #208

Winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, Miguel Syjuco's impressive debut Ilustrado*** (see definition) is most worthy of the buzz.

The panel of judges proclaimed it "brilliantly conceived and stylishly executed, ...ceaselessly entertaining, frequently raunchy, and effervescent with humor".

It begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River. Gone is the controversial lion of Philippine literature as well as is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families.

Miguel, his student and only friend, embarks on a literary archeological dig - through Crispin's poetry, interviews, novels, polemics, and memoirs. The result is a rich and dramatic family saga, tracing 150 years of history of The Philippines. To our great surprise, the story bring us full circle to young Miguel.

"Exuberant and wise, wildly funny and deeply moving, Ilustrado explores the hidden truths that haunt every family. It is a daring and inventive debut by a new writer of astonishing talent."

Born in 1976 in Makati, Miguel Syjuco lived in many cities of the world since his undergraduate days at Ateneo de Manila University. With a master’s at Columbia University, PhD at the University of Adelaide (Australia), he currently lives in Montreal. He had worked in many jobs, from editor of a dotcom, bartender, apartment painter to powerseller of ladies’ designer handbags on eBay until February 2009 when he focused full time on his writing.

Readalike: Homecoming* by Bernhard Schlink - another epistolary novel about history, identity, deception, and discovery.

*** = starred reviews

Steampunk Discovered (and rediscovered)

If you (like me) are new to Steampunk, here is a good definition : "A subgenre of science fiction, it typically (but not always) employs a Victorian setting where steam power and advanced technologies like computers coexist and often features themes, such as secret societies, found in mystery novels."

Though steampunk has been around since the 1980s, (check out these classics) there is a recent crop of exemplary new titles. A personal favorite is Boneshaker by Cherie Priest - a must-read for alternative history fan. It's the 2009 winner of the PNBA Award; and has been nominated for the 2010 Hugo and the Nebula Awards.

Seattle, 1860, rumors of gold, greedy Russians and inventor Leviticus Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine set the stage for this "impressive and auspicious genre-hopping adventure". When this machine inadvertently triggers the release of a deadly gas that transforms people into the living dead, a wall is built around the uninhabitable city to contain the epidemic. 16 years later, teenage Zeke Wilkes, Blue's son, impetuously decides that he must go into the walled city to clear his father's name. His distraught mother Briar, follows in an airship to try to rescue him.

Boneshaker is exceptionally well written. The plot credibly builds around zombies, steampunk technology, underground societies, mad scientists in a mix of horror/mystery. The fast-paced action is balanced by captivating characters, a strong female protagonist, and tender mother-child relationship. The young courageous Zeke will appeal to the YA crowd.

I first discovered the versatile YA author and an associate editor for Subterranean Press Cherie Priest in her genre-bending adult debut Fathom : a chill/thrill fantasy tale set in her native Florida. Part fairy tale, part modern gothic horror, it had me sleepless for a week.

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

Syndicate content