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".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #147

In the summer of 1978, Natalia Keim abandons her husband for another man, leaving Jack to raise their girls alone. Eva, seventeen, plunges into an affair with her married high school teacher while nine-year-old Sissy escapes to a world of imagination. Down the street, ten-year-old Vicki Anderson rides her bike to the local park and is never seen again.

When Natalia unexpectedly returns, the Keims are forced to piece together their complicated pasts and commitments to each other.

"In this haunting, atmospheric debut, Sandra Novack examines loss, loyalty, and a family in crisis. Lyrical and elegiac, Precious* attempts to make sense of the volatility that surrounds and consumes us, and explores our ability, even during the most trying times, to remember and hold on to those we love most." A lovely read to curl up with.

Readers might also try Leah Hager Cohen's gorgeous and lyrical Heat Lightning.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #146

In Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone, the twin sons of a secret love affair between an Indian nun and a British surgeon in Addis Ababa, Marion and Shiva Stone are orphaned by their mother's death in childbirth and father's disappearance. Coming of age in an Ethiopia on the brink of revolution, they are bound together by a shared interest in medicine and forever divided by their love for the same woman.

"An unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the power, intimacy, and curious beauty of the work of healing others". Moving, elegant, and beautifully written.

Lauded for his sensitive memoir about his time as a doctor in eastern Tennessee at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the '80s, Verghese turns his formidable talents to fiction, mining his own life and experiences. Board-certified in internal medicine and in pulmonary and infectious diseases, he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop and is currently on the faculty at Stanford University.

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