Fabulous Fiction Firsts #275

Daisy Goodwin's The American Heiress * * is the story of Cora Cash - beautiful, vivacious, spoiled and very wealthy (Gilded Age - Newport). The only thing missing in her life is a title, so her domineering mother thinks.

So off they go, to the playground of the aristocracy, and sure enough, they land the most eligible bachelor in England. Cora suddenly finds herself Duchess of Wareham, and madly in love. Ivo Maltravers, (beleaguered by death duties and a crumbling country estate), Cora comes to find, could be withdrawn, secretive, and increasingly duplicitous (no surprise to the knowing reader). Though her fortune is eagerly anticipated, it does not smooth her way with her powerful mother-in-law, snobby servants, or the insular English society. Cora soon learns that wealth cannot buy everything, and she must decide what is truly worth the price in her life and her marriage.

"Witty, moving, and brilliantly entertaining".

"A shrewd, spirited historical romance with flavors of Edith Wharton, Daphne du Maurier, Jane Austen, Upstairs, Downstairs and a dash of People magazine that charts a bumpy marriage of New World money and Old World tradition."

"...Goodwin, borrowing elements from a variety of beloved romance classics, keeps you guessing until the very last pages of this fun and finely tuned historical".

Daisy Goodwin attended film school (Columbia) after earning a degree in history (Cambridge). She is a British television producer, a poet 101 Poems That Could Save Your Life , and chaired the judging panel of the 2010 Orange Prize for Fiction. This is her debut novel.

* * = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #274

The hype for Alice LaPlante's Turn of Mind * * * * is building to a fever pitch with its publication this week. It is the leading title for the publisher this season. We saw early review copies back in January and knew this was going to be BIG, and now all the reviews just confirmed that it is the "must read" of the season.

The narrator is Dr. Jennifer White, a widowed retired orthopedic surgeon with rapidly advancing dementia. She is the prime suspect in the murder of her best friend and neighbor Amanda O'Toole. As proud and forceful women, their relationship has been complex and rocky at times. The killer has surgically removed four of Amanda's fingers, and worse yet, Jennifer does not know whether she did it or not. As the investigation into the murder deepens and White’s relationships with her live-in caretaker and two grown children intensify, a chilling question lingers: is White’s shattered memory preventing her from revealing the truth or helping her to hide it?

"A startling portrait of a disintegrating mind clinging to bits of reality through anger, frustration, shame, and unspeakable loss, Turn of Mind is a remarkable debut that examines the deception and frailty of memory and how it defines our very existence."

"An extraordinarily crafted debut novel... the author is able to do it so convincingly through the eyes and voice of the central character is an amazing achievement. Heartbreaking and stunning, this is both compelling and painful to read."

Good companion read to this year's bumper crop of FFFs dealing with neuroscience and the strange and wondrous workings of the human mind. See blogs on Left Neglected and Before I Go to Sleep. Turn of Mind also joins a growing list of titles dealing with Alzheimer's, and does it brilliantly.

Alice LaPlante was a Wallace Stegner Fellow and a Jones Lecturer at Stanford University. She teaches creative writing at both Stanford and San Francisco State University.

* * * * = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #273

If you enjoy a leisurely afternoon browsing in antique shops, or find yourself searching out flea markets in your travels, then I think you will find a little treasure here. 13, rue Thérèse came out earlier this year but I waited for the audio book, and I was not disappointed. Jefferson Mays and Mia Barron did an amazing job bringing drama and breathing life into this recording of Elena Mauli Shapiro's debut novel.

Trevor Stratton, an American academic working in Paris is fascinated with a box of personal artifacts found in a filing cabinet in his new office. Sorting through the photographs, postcards, handkerchief, letters, and other vintage keepsakes that once belonged to a woman named Louise Brunet, Trevor begins to imagine and invent a life for her at 13, rue Therese, Paris, - from losing a young lover on the WWI battlefield, a marriage to someone of her father's choosing, to a daring and passionate affair with a married neighbor.

As Louise's life takes shape in Trevor's mind, he begins to notice Josianne, one of the young secretaries, and her eerie connection to the box. Trevor is intrigued and must find out why.

Elena Mauli Shapiro was born and raised in Paris, France, in an apartment below the real-life Louise Brunet’s. Shapiro found herself in possession of a box of Louise’s keepsakes after her neighbor died. They became the inspiration for the novel. See the real artifacts online at the book's website.

Joyce Saricks, Readers Advisory guru, focused her attention recently on the Unexpected Pleasures of audiobooks. I especially enjoy listening to translated works or works set in exotic locales. I often find them impromptu language lessons, with a bit of serendipitous armchair-traveling thrown in. 13 rue Therese was a real find.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #272

I am just going to say it. This might not be for everyone.

Unclean Jobs for Women and Girls, the winner of the Sixth Starcherone Prize for Innovative Fiction and a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award is also hard to define.

Alissa Nutting's fanciful debut collection of 18 short stories are anything but ordinary, and they will shock, intrigue, provoke and delight you. In "Dinner" a young woman wills herself to fall in love with a kettle-mate as she is being boiled and served. In "Porn Star", an adult reality show actress delivers herself as the prize on the moon to the winner of an all-you-can-eat contest (specialty spacesuit required). In "Ice Melter" a lonely artist who makes ice sculptures for gay pool parties has an unfortunate accident with one of her works. These and other stories in the collection are not-so subtle explorations of body politics and the need for intimacy and connection.

"Nutting's outrageous and excruciating writing makes my face split with laughter, often in public. She's glorious choas and utterly original - read her with joy" ~ Lydia Millet. I can't say it any better.

The author was born in rural Michigan. She is a graduate of the University of Florida and is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is also the managing editor of Fairy Tale Review.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #271

A Cambridge grad (English Lit.), Rosamund Lupton won the Carlton Television's new writers' competition and was selected by the BBC for a place on their new writers' course before becoming a novelist. Her debut Sister: a novel * * * was originally published (2010) in the UK in paperback. Steadily building up steam and garnering great reviews (The New York Times, for example) along the way, it is likely to be one of the big "must reads" this summer. I read it in one night. Just couldn't put it down.

When Bee (Beatrice) Hemming receives a call in Manhattan from her mother that her sister Tess is missing, she is on the next plane out to London. The sisters are THAT close. When Tess is found dead (in an apparent suicide) Bee refuses to accept that. As Bee moves into Tess's art student studio/apartment, tracks down her friends and lovers, traces her movements leading up to her disappearance, a disturbing picture begins to emerge. All the tell-tale signs point to the murderer as someone Tess knows and trusts, someone that might see Bee now as a threat.

The narrative takes the form of a series of intimate letters from Bee to Tess as she recounts their family life, the fierce devotion between them, as well as being an effective device that would allow Bee to lay out in meticulous details, her fearless pursue of the murderer.

"A chilling, gripping, tragic, heartwarming, life-affirming enigma of a story" . "A skillfully wrought psychological thriller". You might be a bit late to the party already (Sorry about the waiting list), but don't miss this one.

Watch Rosamund Lupton discuss the inspiration behind the writing of the book on YouTube.

* * * = starred reviews.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #270

You Know When the Men are Gone * * brings to mind the final line in John Milton's (1608-74) sonnet On His Blindness : "They also serve who only stand and wait"; and is a powerful, unsentimental portrait of America at war on the domestic front.

This debut collection of 8 interconnected stories by Siobhan Fallon relate the experiences of Fort Hood (Texas) military wives who share a poignant vigil during which they raise children while waiting for their husbands to return.

In the audio, a winner of the AudioFile Earphones Award, narrator Cassandra Campbell packs each story with a unique emotional punch, capturing the loneliness, the waiting, the anxiety, boredom and sometimes resentment among the women.

The author lived at Fort Hood while her husband, an Army major, was deployed to Iraq for two tours of duty. She earned her MFA at the New School in New York City. Fallon lives with her family near the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, California.

When you leave Fort Hood, the sign above the gate warns, You've Survived the War, Now Survive the Homecoming . For the lingering effect of war on families, I liked Tim Farrington's Lizzie's War (2005).

And let's not forget the young who too, are asked to endure, I highly recommend Laura Harrington's Alice Bliss (2011), a coming-of-age story with wisdom and heart.

* * = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #269

A best-selling author abroad who's been awarded France's Chevalier de L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, American-born Douglas Kennedy is not yet a household word this side of the Atlantic but his first major U.S. release The Moment : a novel * is likely to change that. (Follow in quick succession by The Woman in the Fifth coming out in July, and already adapted into film starring Ethan Hawke and Kristin Scott Thomas).

Just divorced travel writer Thomas Nesbitt receives a package at his remote Maine cottage that brings him back to an affair during his days in Berlin working for Radio Liberty. He was drawn to Petra Dussmann, an East Berlin refugee translator whose traumatic history, and the dirty politics of Cold War spy game brought their affair to a devastating close.

Set against the melancholy backdrop of a divided city, it's richly romantic and emotionally engaging, a Cold War novel that is both accessible and compelling. Read The Moment and be moved by Thomas and Petra's connection, the impossibility of their situation and the ethical dilemma that would eventually devastate them both.

"Kennedy's (official website) work harkens back to an earlier era of big novels à la James Michener and Herman Wouk, which is perhaps why—regrettably—he is still more widely read abroad than in his native land." A writer to get to know and a work to be savored.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #268

South of Superior by Ellen Airgood. I loved it for the rare "up north" setting, snippets of local history, the pace, the colorful cast of characters, and a lovely excuse to spend an afternoon in the sun with a good story.

Madeline Stone walks away from her job, her home in Chicago, and a well-planned life with a respectable guy, to move to McAllaster, a small town along the coast of Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, just because Gladys Hansen asks, and mind you, none too graciously either. You see, Madeline has unfinished business there and also, she is curious - curious about the unforgiving family and the heartless town that abandoned her, left her in a church basement with strangers when she was very young.

While Madeline is eager for the truth and assignation of blame, she is unprepared for how the community will teach her about life, love, friendship and grace; and how to take charge of one's own happiness.

First-time author Ellen Airgood lives and runs a diner with her husband in Grand Marais, Michigan, the inspiration for the fictional McAllaster. She is quick to point out that she did not get an MFA or study writing in school, the craft of storytelling she learned from waiting tables for 19 years.

South of Superior is a Midwest Booksellers Association Pick for June.

Readalikes (also coming out this month): Susan Mallery's Already Home, and The Definition of Wind by Ellen Block.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #267

S.J. Watson's Before I Go to Sleep : a novel * * * is definitely the buzz of the summer, the book everyone is waiting to get their hands on.

Young and single Christine Lucas awakes each morning appalled with the 47 year-old woman looking back at her in the mirror. A man named Ben reminds her each day he is her husband. Each night as she sleeps, her near-term memory is wiped clean. With the help of her memory coach Dr. Nash, Christine keeps a secret journal which contains key details from her past, details that don't quite match the story Ben has been telling her.

With a taut and well-constructed plot, the immediacy of the first-person narrative, and the pulse-pounding suspense, British debut novelist Watson gives us one of the season's very best psychological thriller. Rights sold to 34 countries. Film rights to Ridley Scott. Early blurbs by Dennis Lehane and Tess Gerritsen.

* * * = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #266, and other essential summer reading

Summer Reading is just around the corner. It is time to seriously map out your game plan. Here are just a couple of suggestions for you.

Bibliophiles and librarians far and wide are waiting with baited breath for Rebecca Makkai's debut - The Borrower. 26 year-old accidental children's librarian (Hannibal, MO) Lucy Hull (English Literature, Mount Holyoke) finds herself hijacked by 10 year-old Ian Drake (with possible gender identity issues - an important plot element), a voracious reader who is precocious and persuasive as he is vulnerable and manipulative. The pair zigzag their way across the country, Thelma and Louise-styled, just ahead of the law (Lucy is sure) and the dangerous-looking man on their tail (KGB?)

I ask that you check your critical self and anxiety at the door and give our Lucy some rope. All will be revealed in good time and will affirm once and for all, that books save lives. Enough said. Just hand me the box of tissues, please.

On the subject of tissues... there was not one dry eye in the audience when Alice Ozma spoke of her deeply affecting memoir The Reading Promise : my father and the books we shared *, back in January and it has stayed with me all this time. (Watch Alice on YouTube).

In 4th grade, Alice and her single father (a beloved elementary school librarian) made a promise to read aloud together for 100 consecutive nights. From L. Frank Baum to Dickens, from J.K. Rowling to Shakespeare, the "streak" continued for eight years through the night before Alice left for college. Each chapter highlights a significant event, a book they particularly treasured, and the life lessons learned along the way. Poignant and beautifully written.

The Reading Promise would make a perfect graduation gift for the readers in your life. And if you are lucky to have youngsters still in your care, this might inspire you to make a promise of your own.

* = Starred review

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