Fabulous Fiction Firsts #157

In Aussie Toni Jordan's Addition, there is no getting around the fact that Grace Lisa Vandenburg is neurotic - lovable but definitely neurotic! - counting the bristles on the toothbrush and the poppy seeds on her cake (daily) neurotic. Her obsession with counting renders her unemployable and very much a loner except for Nikola Tesla, the turn-of-the-twentieth-century inventor whose portrait sits on her bedside table and who rescues her in her dreams.

Seamus Joseph O'Reilly, an Irish transplant is intrigued by Grace who steals his banana at the check-out line. A shared table at Grace's morning coffee run soon blossoms into romance, and Grace begins to want a normal life with this passionate and darling man. The path to recovery as well as true love is never smooth - but on the way, Grace learns a few valuable lessons and we are treated to a "sweet, agreeable romantic comedy".

This superb debut marks Jordan (interview) as a writer to watch.Discussion questions are available for an upbeat book group choice.

For a novel on the topic of obsessive-compulsive disorder, try teen novelist Terry Spencer Hesser's Kissing Doorknobs. For another humorous take on the subject, try Steve Martin's The Pleasure of My Company.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #156

David Cristofano's The Girl She Used to Be* is a "compulsively readable, skillfully constructed" first novel that you won't be able to put down.

After assuming 8 different identities since aged 6 through the Government's Witness Protection Program that ultimately could not safeguard her parents, Melody McCartney is no longer sure who she is and therefore is stunned when someone actually calls her by her real name!

Enter Jonathan Bovaro, son of the Mafia family that is at the root of her troubles. He is elusive, dangerous, and charming. Melody should run the other way but she cannot resist him, and stays.

Major nail-biting suspense with lots of plot twists, intense and itchy-sexy. Don't miss this one.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #155

Canadian journalist Elizabeth Kelly's Apologize, Apologize! is a novel about the triumphs and tragedies of the "fantstic Flanagans" of Martha's Vineyard - a super-rich, dysfunctional, "nutty/drunken/wacky/irresponsible" family.

The angst-ridden narrator Collie (named after his parents' favorite dog breed) recounts life in this zany household, his troubled relationship with brother Bingo, the guilt over a family tragedy and his hard-won redemption.

Critics are impressed with first-time novelist Kelly's display of "unrelenting quirkiness" that begs comparison with Daniel Wallace and John Irving.

Its whimsical tone also brings to mind Galt Niederhoffer's A Taxonomy of Barnacles, Jonathan Franzen's The Corrections and The Royal Tenenbaums.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #154

A Beautiful Place to Die* is an accomplished debut in a projected mystery series by Malla Nunn.

Award-winning filmmaker Nunn sets this atmospheric police procedural in her native South Africa. Det. Sgt. Emmanuel Cooper is called to investigate the murder of an Afrikaner police captain in Jacob's Rest, a small border town with Mozambique.

1952 saw the gathering force of apartheid. New government decrees further etched the color divide. Racial tension, already ingrained, festered with secrets and lies both sordid and honorable. Cooper, being an outsider and under the oppressive supervision of the farcical government agents, must tread lightly to get at the truth.

Mystery readers might remember fondly James McClure's early apartheid procedurals, mostly out-of-print. For another current series set in South Africa, try Salamander Cotton by Richard Kunzmann.

Fans of the PBS MYSTERY! program should also check out the cinematic 1999 miniseries Heat of the Sun, about a former Scotland Yarder transplanted to 1930s Nairobi, filmed entirely on location.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #153

Once in awhile a novel comes along and it is so lovely, it takes your breath away.

Patrick Somerville's The Cradle is a tiny little gem of a debut - spare, elegant, and so satisfying.

In the summer of 1997, newlyweds Marissa and Matt are expecting their first child. Marissa longs for the antique cradle she slept in - the one her mother Caroline took from the family home when she ran off. Matt is determined to track it down. His journey takes him across the Midwest and to the discovery that will forever change Marissa's life.

Matt's quest is interwoven with a second narrative that takes place 11 years later, in which poet and children's author Renee Owen is preparing to send her son off to fight in Iraq.

Radiating with wisdom and wonder, The Cradle is the story of one man's journey into the heart of marriage, parenthood, and what it means to be a family.

Patrick Somerville (biography) is a writer to watch.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #152

Eve: a novel of the first woman is a luminous and unique retelling of the oldest story in the world - that of Adam and Eve.

First-time novelist Elissa Elliott puts a powerful twist on the biblical narrative, boldly reimagining Eve’s journey, from the woman who once tasted the forbidden fruit of paradise to one watching her family unravel right before her eyes. "At once intimate and universal, timely and timeless, it explores the very essence of love, motherhood, faith, and humanity".

For readers of historical fiction depicting women in the Bible, and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant immediately comes to mind.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #151

The Tourist*, a new stand-alone from Edgar-finalist Olen Steinhauer, is a spy-thriller being compared by critics to the genre classics of John leCarre, Graham Greene and Len Deighton.

Milo Weaver used to be a “tourist” - A CIA undercover agent with no home, no identity. Now retired, he has a 9-5 desk job at the Company’s New York office, a family and a brownstone in Brooklyn. However, when the arrest of a long-sought-after assassin sets off an investigation into one of Milo’s old cases, he has no choice but to go back undercover and to find out who’s pulling the strings.

This "superbly accomplished", "richly nuanced" tale introduces to Steinhauer readers (of his excellent Eastern European quintet) a new hero in Weaver - who is smart but sometimes not smart enough and who toils at a soul-crushing job utterly alone. Film rights sold to George Clooney.

* = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #150

It is 1962, Jackson, Mississippi. 22 year-old Skeeter has a college degree but it worries her mother that she does not have a ring on her finger. Aibileen, a black maid, is heartsick over losing her son but no one could doubt her devotion to yet another white child she is raising. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short and sassy, with a sharp tongue that gets her fired left and right. But boy, could she cook!

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk.

In pitch-perfect voices, debut novelist Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town; and the way women, mothers, daughters, caregivers, and friends view one another.

"A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #149

Pictures at an Exhibition, a title borrowed from the familiar Mussorgsky's suite for piano, is an impressive debut by novelist Sara Houghteling.

Picture presents a realistic rendering of the world of Parisian art dealers before and after the Nazi occupation. Daniel Berenzon, who represents the likes of Matisse and Picasso in his prestigious Paris gallery flees to the South of France during the Occupation. Upon his return, he finds the gallery burned and the hidden masterpieces gone.

It is Rose Clément (drawn from the real-life Louvre curator Rose Valland, whose documentation helped repatriate thousands of paintings) who heroically aids Max (Daniel's son) in his desperate effort to recover the stolen art. (The 1964 film The Train was inspired by this historical footnote).

A Hopwood Awards winner, Houghteling received her Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Michigan and a Fulbright to study paintings that went missing during the war. Her vivid descriptions of paintings and their power add to the allure of the novel.

Readers interested in the Nazi looting of art treasures across Europe should check out Lynn Nicholas' The Rape of Europa: the fate of Europe's treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War or the documentation at the National Archive on the subject.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #148

Three-time Edgar Award winner Joe Gores' Spade & Archer is the only authorized (by Dashiell Hammett's daughter) prequel to The Maltese Falcon (1930).

When Sam Spade gets drawn into the Maltese Falcon case, we know what to expect -- straight talk, hard questions, no favors, and no way for anyone to get underneath the protective shell he wears like a second skin. We know that Spade is sleeping with his late partner Archer’s wife, Iva. What we don’t know is how Spade becomes who he is. Spade & Archer completes the picture, beginning in 1921 when Spade sets up his own agency in San Francisco.

"The author (who lives in Marin County in the Bay Area) not only does a brilliant job of bringing Prohibition-era San Francisco to life with street-level detail and a native's perspective, but also captures Hammett's spare style and tone perfectly".

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