Fabulous Fiction First #197

Cathy Marie Buchanan's debut The Day the Falls Stood Still beautifully evokes life around Niagara Falls in the early 20th century, and the beginnings of hydroelectric power.

Set in the waning days of WWI, as a child of privilege, 17 year-old Bess Heath is not prepared for the disgrace and crumblng family finances when her father loses his job. She tries to hold the family together while her sister slips into depression, and her mother withdraws from society. Against her family's wishes, Bess rejects the courtship of a wealthy young man and finds comfort in the love of Tom Cole, a river man with a mysterious connection to the falls.

Based loosely on the history of Niagara river man William "Red" Hill, the narrative incorporates mock newspaper articles and vintage photographs, detailed depictions of domestic life, local lore, and fascinating natural history.

Historical fiction fans who liked Kathleen Cambor's lyrical and imaginative depiction of the lives that were lived, lost, and irreparably changed by the tragedy of the Johnstown (PA) flood in In Sunlight, in a Beautiful Garden, will find much to like here.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #196

A Southern debut novel sparkling with humor, heart and feminine wisdom, Beth Hoffman's Saving CeeCee Honeycutt* is about a vulnerable young girl who loses one mother and finds solace in the “perfume world of prosperity and Southern eccentricity, a world that seems to be run entirely by women".

12 year-old CeeCee Honeycutt finds it hard to grieve for her mother (a loony former beauty queen) who walks in front of an ice cream truck. Her father offers no comfort. In fact, he promptly packs her off to Savannah to live with Great Aunt Tootie.

In this Steel Magnolias (1989) meets The Secret Life of Bees, Saving CeeCee is "packed full of Southern charm, strong women, wacky humor, and good old-fashioned heart. It is a novel that explores the indomitable strengths of female friendship", and the promise of new beginnings. A feel-good read with wide appeal.

Teens will find it easy to relate to CeeCee's struggle to reclaim a "normal" childhood, anger of abandonment, and her yearning for a place to call home. Recommended. (100,000 first printing)

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #195

While friendship stories are commonplace in women's fiction, one that depicts 4 slave women set in the mid -1850s is still a rarity.

Wench* traces the friendship between Lizzie, Reenie, Sweet and Mawu at an Ohio resort where Southern men bring their slave women. Over the course of three summers, these women came together to bare their souls, contemplate their future and support each other through sorrows and occasional joy.

First-time novelist Dolen Perkins-Valdez draws on research about the resort that eventually became the first black college Wilberforce University for the setting while she explores the complexities of relationships between these women and their white owners.

"Compelling and unsentimental", "heart-wrenching, intriguing, original and suspenseful, this novel showcases Perkins-Valdez's ability to bring the unfortunate past to life". ~Publishers Weekly. A good readalike for Cane River by Lalita Tademy.

For further reading on women in slavery, we suggest: Ar'n't I a Woman? : Female slaves in the Plantation South by Deborah Gray White and Labor of love, Labor of Sorrow : Black women, work, and the family from slavery to the present by Jacqueline Jones.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #194

Now that Lee Child's Gone Tomorrow has snatched the top honor in the Adrenaline category of the 2010 Reading List Award, Jack Reacher fans could hardly contain themselves. While they eagerly await the next Reacher scrape, we suggest The Bricklayer.

Pseudonym for a former FBI agent, Noah Boyd's debut (and projected series opener) features Steve Vail, a former agent turned bricklayer who is recruited to solve a brilliant and deadly extortion plot by a mysterious organization called the Rubaco Pentad. One thing is clear: someone who knows a little too much about the inner workings of the Bureau is very clever —and very angry—and will kill and kill again if it means he can disgrace the FBI.

While some reviewers find fault with it being "...highly formulaic", "predictably inclusive finish with a bit of romance", most would admit that it is "pulse-pounding", and "irresistible red meat for connoisseurs of action thrillers". (150,000 first printing)

You know you are going to read it. Might as well be first on the list.

February Books to Film, Part 1 (and a Fabulous Fiction Firsts)

Crazy heartsCrazy hearts

"Overlooked Literary Darling Gets a Second Act" reads the caption on a Publishers Weekly article about an indie film (wide release February 2 but already in Ann Arbor theaters this past weekend) based on the 1987 novel Crazy Heart by a first-time author Thomas Cobb.

Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a 57 year-old singer, guitarist, songwriter, alcoholic womanizer, and all-around charming reprobate, who attempts to work his way back to the top of the country-and-western charts. Maggie Gyllenhaal, is the journalist determined to find the real man behind the musician.

The novel received glowing praise ("...just might be the finest country-western novel ever written") when it debuted, but did not translate into sales or lasting recognition for Cobb. A second book (2003) and a new novel in 2008 published to little fanfare. HarperPerennial, who is republishing Crazy counts on it being an overdue break-out for the author.

(I have it on good authority that the film is crazy good. Don't miss it!!)

Dear John (opening February 5th), is based on a novel of duty, longing, and heartbreak, by Nicholas Sparks .

A soldier home on leave falls for a conservative college girl. Instead of returning home to her, he re-enlists after the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Time and distance begin to take a toll on the young lovers. Channing Tatum plays the title role, with Amanda Seyfried as Savannah.

Fabulous Fiction First #193

Tamar Myers, author of two ongoing domestic mystery series - one featuring Magdalena Yoder, an Amish-Mennonite sleuth who runs a bed and breakfast, and the other - Den of Antiquity, centers around the adventures of Abigail Timberlake, the proud owner of an antique store, now brings us a stand-alone.

The Witch Doctor's Wife* is set in tiny Belle Vue, a Congolese village in the 1950s where a prim American missionary, her cranky housekeeper, a sleazy executive, a witch doctor and a large uncut diamond all come into play. Before you know it, one of the most delightful characters is charged with murder.

Myers draws from her personal history to bring insight and local color to a specific place in time. Publishers Weekly considers this " a major breakthrough for Myers as she displays storytelling skills not seen in her previous works".

Fans of mysteries by Alexander McCall Smith , Malla Nunn, and Michael Stanley are sure to relish the opportunity to explore another intriguing area of Africa.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #192

Blacklands*** is a taut and chillingly brilliant debut by British journalist/screenwriter Belinda Bauer.

Steven Lamb, an under-sized 12 yr. old boy, armed with a shovel, could be seen digging along the wild moors of Shipcott (Somerset), oblivious to the weather. He is digging for treasure - no, not the kind fascinating to boys his age, but for his uncle’s body. 18 years ago, young Billy Peters disappeared and unhinged his family.

Dejected with the lack of results, Steven knows convicted serial killer Arnold Avery could show him where to dig. After all, he buried them. Steven writes and Arnold answers. What begins as a cat-and-mouse mind game between a naive but determined boy and a clever and sadistic pedophile turns deadly when Avery senses an opportunity to relive his crime.

"Bauer displays remarkable talent in pacing, plotting and, most important of all, getting beneath the skin of even her most repellent characters". What was originally conceived as a short story about a boy and his grandmother (from the author's note) is likely to be one of the shining stars in crime fiction this year. Shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award.

Readalikes: Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost, and In the Woods by Tana French.

*** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #191

Leila Meacham's debut Roses* is getting huge buzz among advance readers and the publishing community and has been favorably compared to works of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds).

This multi-generational saga is set in a small East Texas town where two founding families - The Tolivers and the Warwicks (descendants of the houses of Lancaster and York of the War of the Roses fame) control its powerful timber and cotton industries.

When Mary Toliver inherits her family's cotton plantation, Somerset, it tears apart her family; and causes her to lose the love of her life, timber magnate Percy Warwick. Now at 85, Mary is determined the family curse will not claim another generation of Tolivers, and set her plans in motion to sell off the plantation.

Spanning much of the 20th century, this old-fashioned saga of secrets and passion, feud and revenge will entertain and appeal to Gothic-romance readers and moviegoers of such "Southern-fried epics" as Gone with the Wind and Giant (based on a novel by Edna Ferber).

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #190

In Victor Lodato’s “phenomenal” debut, Mathilda Savitch***, fearless and observant 13 year-old Mathilda Savitch is determined to sleuth and find the person who pushed her older sister – wild and beautiful Helene, in front of a moving train. Mathilda is convinced that Helene’s secrets lie dormant in their computer and the cryptic and increasingly alarming emails from a stranger will lead her to the killer.

At times heartbreaking and hilarious, the compelling page-tuner grapples with serious issues while never allowing us to lose sight of the immediacy of Mathilda’s chaotic reality, making her a sympathetic and engaging narrator.

Victor Lodato (recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of numerous awards including the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays), “indelibly captures the fragile vulnerability and fearless bravado of adolescence through Mathilda’s impeccable voice, one that rages with alienation, frustration and confusion as much as it aches with hope, wonder and desire. “

Comparison to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is inevitable. Highly recommended.

*** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #189

Emily Arsenault's charming debut The Broken Teaglass* is quietly getting some much-deserved hand-selling, and I am glad.

Two young lexicographers stumble onto clues scattered among the citations file at the dictionary publishing office where they work. Written as “cits”, they reference a fictitious book called The Broken Teaglass but seem to be a confession to a decade-old unsolved murder case involving the “The Glass Girl”. What begins as curiosity for two active young minds turns strangely personal when many of the players involved clearly resemble their senior colleagues and mentors.

Clever word play, behind-the-scenes look at the dictionary publishing industry, and well-drawn characters make for a delightful, quietly humorous and off-beat mystery. The author has worked as a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster dictionary, an English teacher, a children’s librarian, and a Peace Corps volunteer. She wrote The Broken Teaglass to pass the long, quiet evenings in her mud brick house while living in rural South Africa.

Wordsmiths and puzzle-lovers should also try Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, and Blind Submission by Debra Ginsberg.

* = Library Journal's Fall 2009 Editors' Picks

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