Fabulous Fiction Firsts #171

What promises to be a rather formulaic chick lit., mildly entertaining summer escapist read turned out to be a compulsive page-turner - twisty, sexy and magical.

In debut novelist Margot Berwin's Hothouse Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire, recently divorced Lila Nova impulsively purchased a bird of paradise from the hunky plant guy at a Manhattan green market to spruce up her depressingly lifeless apartment. Soon she was hooked - on David, as well as the lore and lure of tropical plants.

A chance discovery of a rare plant at an odd Laundromat and its enigmatic proprietor Armand took Lila deep into the Yucatan jungle, in search of extreme adventure and the nine mythical plants of desire. Little did Lila know what await her amidst unspeakable beauty and magic, would be treachery and heartbreak, but ultimately, also self-knowledge and redemption.

Hothouse Flower is fresh, fun, and wonderfully captivating - everything you would want for a lazy summer’s eve.

For fans of Sarah Addison Allen's Garden Spells and Laura Esquivel's Like Water for Chocolate . Plant enthusiasts and eco travelers would do well to also check out Susan Orlean’s award-winning The Orchid Thief.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #170

In Romance novelist Linda Castillo's chilling mystery debut Sworn to Silence*, Kate Burkholder is a "gun-toting, cursing, female chief of police" at Painters Mill, (Ohio) an idyllic Amish community that prides itself in distancing from the complication of modern life, that is, until a serial killer resurfaces to terrorize the town. The current victims all sport the killer's signature - Roman numerals ritualistically carved into their abdomens.

Kate has good reason to worry - well above her duty to protect and defend - as she is a surviving victim of torture and rape 16 years ago. What transpired estranged her from her family and her faith, and left her totally isolated with a secret she is desperate to keep.

"Deeply flawed characters in a distinctive setting make this a crackling good series opener, recommended for fans of T. Jefferson Parker and Robert Ellis, whose books take place in very un-Amish settings but who generate the same kind of chills and suspense.”

* = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #169

The Frightened Man* launches a historical mystery series set in Jack-the-Ripper era London. Author Kenneth Cameron also writes military thrillers with his son under the name Gordon Kent.

Infamous American ex-lawman Denton now lives a solitary life in London, (we will discover his tragic past) sporadically turning out sensational novels of questionable quality. He is smitten with a two-timing mistress, well-served by his Jeeves-like Sergeant Atkins, and gets himself tangled up in the gruesome murder of a young prostitute. It all started with the visit of a frightened stranger who claims to have witnessed Jack the Ripper at work.

“A gripping page-turner, Cameron's novel combines a devilishly clever plot, enigmatic characters, a foreboding atmosphere, and a shocking finale. A top pick for all crime collections.” ~ Booklist

Fans of atmospheric historical mysteries set in London might also like C.S. Harris’s Where Serpents Sleep (2008), 4th in the Sebastian St. Cyr series featuring a Regency-era gentleman sleuth. Dust and Shadow: An account of the Ripper killings by Dr. John H. Watson (2009) by Lyndsay Faye is a fictionalized documentary of the most famous serial killer in history.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #168

Move over, Mdm. Precious Ramotswe (of the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency). Or at least make room for Vish Puri!

Tarquin Hall introduces India's "Most Private Investigator" in his The Case of the Missing Servant*. Portly, persistent, and unmistakably Punjabi, he cuts a determined swath through modern Delhi's swindlers, cheats, and murderers.

Pleased with a break from the usual screening of prospective marriage partners, Puri investigates the murder of a maidservant while keeping an eagle eye on his widowed "Mummy-ji" who is determined to sleuth alongside his team of colorful undercover operatives. Ingeniously combining modern investigative techniques with 2000 year-old Indian principles of detection, Puri is a welcome addition to the pantheon of exotic sleuths.

Strong local color, sly humor, endearing characterization and keen observation make this debut mystery a wild and deligthful ride. Future cases are to be expected.

* = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #167

In Repeat After Me*, (Ann Arbor native) Rachel DeWoskin, author of the laugh-out-loud funny and poignant Foreign Babes in Beijing: behind the scenes of a new China impresses readers and critics alike with her debut novel of modern China and one American girl's struggle to find herself there.

This complex love story of cultural intersection begins with Aysha Silvermintz and recent immigrant Chen Da Ge, a sporadic and moody student assigned to her ESL class. Under the pretense of helping him gain citizenship, they marry.

The story picks up 13 years later with Aysha living in Beijing with her daughter, immersing them both in the daily life of their adopted home, and struggling to make sense of the mystery that was Chen. "A tender story of manic love and loss, this is a heartbreaking and uplifting novel with memorably off-kilter leads".

"DeWoskin demonstrates a smart, sophisticated literary agility", .... (her) firsthand knowledge of China, its language, and its traditions, as well as life in New York City, and her characters live and breathe". * = Starred reviews.

Click here to watch Rachel DeWoskin on her experiences living in China, a presentation at the Ann Arbor District Library.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #166

Former Publishers Weekly editor Emily Chenoweth's luminous debut Hello Goodbye* is perhaps one of my favorites this season. It is "deeply moving and yet unsentimental... beautifully crafted, intimate and sweet, funny and intelligent".

During one week in August, the Hansen family returns to vacation at a historic resort in the White Mountains. Helen, who is at her last stage of a terminal illness is there to say goodbye to a lifetime of friends, while husband Elliott relishes a respite from his caretaking duties. College-aged Abby has yet to come to terms with grief and loss as she teeters at the bright cusp of adulthood.

Hello is lyrical and poetic. It manages to be heartbreaking and life-affirming at the same time. It will resonate with you long after the last page is turned. A worthy contender for the tearjerker award.

* = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #165

Andrew Grant's debut Even* is an exciting addition to the adrenaline-fused suspense/thriller genre.

David Trevellyan, a Royal Navy secret agent stumbles across a murdered tramp in a dark alley as he leisurely strolls back to his Manhattan hotel. An anonymous tip convinces the NYPD that they got their man. With diplomatic tug-of-war across the Atlantic, organized crime, a sadistic villain out for revenge, and the FBI dogging his every step, David's only ally is the lovely Tanya, a former colleague who has her own secrets to hide.

Fans of the Robert Ludlum's Jason Bourne series would be pleased to meet up with this 21st century James Bond, a creation of Lee Child's baby brother (See them at a recent joint signing in San Diego). Even's resemblance to the Jack Reacher series is purely coincidental, you think?

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #164

At the heart of Enrique Joven's gripping debut (translated from the Spanish) The Book of God and Physics* is the Voynich Manuscript - a puzzling document that has fascinated generations of cryptologists both amateur and professional with its odd drawings and strange text, as yet undeciphered.

This 500 year-old oddity found its way to the Yale University Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, where a Jesuit physics teacher and two resourceful collaborators try to pierce the mystery, including the possible murder of a well-known scientist. The Church, on the other hand, seems to be going to great lengths to keep the book's meaning hidden.

"Joven's sophisticated perspective indeed opens insights into the current controversy pitting Darwinism against intelligent design. A book to delight lovers of well-crafted fiction and well-anchored fact." ~ Booklist

Debut author Katherine Howe's The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane deals with yet another archival puzzler connected to the most fascinating and disturbing periods in American history - the Salem witch trials. Fan of Matthew Pearl would find themselves two new authors to watch.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #163

This "wickedly brilliant" cozy by Canadian journalist Alan Bradley won the 2007 Debut Dagger Award of the Crimewriter's Association.

Set in a quaint English village, The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie* features one of the most engaging amateur sleuths since Harriet the Spy.

11 year-old Flavia de Luce, a walking encyclopedia of the practical use of poison, is thrilled to find a corpse in the cucumber patch of the family's crumbling manor. A missing piece of custard pie, a dead snipe bearing a priceless "gift" on the door step, a retired librarian with a menacing secret and a shell-shocked WWII soldier are among her suspects but the bumbling police arrest her father for the crime. It is all up to Flavia to save the day.

Pure delight. Sequel likely, and most eagerly anticipated.

* = starred reviews

(Audio) Fabulous Fiction Firsts #162

Sea of Poppies*, is the first volume of the Ibis Trilogy by Amitav Ghosh, one of India's best known writers and was shortlisted for the 2008 Man Booker Prize.

At the heart of this vibrant 19th century saga is an immense ship, the Ibis. Its destiny is a tumultuous voyage across the Indian Ocean, its purpose to fight China's vicious Opium Wars. Among the crew and cast are a motley array of sailors, stowaways, Indians and Westerners inexplicably connected by family, loyalty, honor, survival, greed, and imperialism. The vast sweep of this historical adventure embraces the lush poppy fields of the Ganges, the rolling high seas, and the crowded backstreets of Canton (China). “But it is the panorama of characters, whose diaspora encapsulates the vexed colonial history of the East itself that makes Sea a masterpiece. “ ~Boston Globe

Admittedly a bit daunting for readers unfamiliar with the history, culture, languages of Indian sub-continent but narrator Phil Gigante’s nuanced performance brings the book to life.

* = Starred reviews

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