Fabulous Fiction Firsts #145

Fans of NPR-Books shouldn't miss first-novelist Jamie Ford's interview and discussion of his Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Set in Seattle 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, amidst mounting racial tension and the frenzy of Japanese Americans' relocation, is the heartwarming story of Henry Lee, his first love Keiko Okabe and their shared passion for jazz.

For a closer look at this chapter in our shared history, see the Manzanar Series - images captured by Ansel Adams. Readers might also try Sandra Dallas' Tallgrass, a vivid portrayal of life in the internment camps and how they, forever altered our cultural landscape.

Also recommended is Disappearing Moon Cafe by Sky Lee, "...a feisty, complex, and award-winning first novel" - an intimate look at the many facets of Chinatown USA.

Read more about Jamie Ford from his website and the Panama Hotel on which the title is based. For book groups, a discussion guide is available.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #144

Norman Green's latest The Last Gig* is the first in a projected series featuring teen shamus Al(essandra) Martillo - a Puerto Rican runaway from Bronx.

Tough and street-smart, Al might have taken on more than she had bargained for when hired by Mickey Caughlan, head of a local Irish mob, to uncover the traitor within.

While the storyline might have been rather straightforward, it is Al who steals the show - "She fights like a Valkyrie, loves hard, runs scared at times, stand tall when it matter, is sexy, endearing and just about the freshest heroine to enhance genre fiction in forever" ~Kirkus. Now that's sounds like a winner to me!

* = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #143

Looking for your Dream House* ? Beware of that small clapboard house on Macon Street, not far from the campus of the University of Michigan (fictitious, of course).

Pushcart Prize winner Valerie Laken's first novel is one stunning cautionary tale. Hoping to rekindle their troubled marriage while renovating a historic house in Ann Arbor, Kate and Stuart Kinzler learn that the house had been the scene of a devastating murder some 20 years earlier while the Prices, a working-class black family, lived there.

When Stuart walks out in the middle of Kate's ambitious remodeling, Kate forms new relationships with two men who have ties to the murder and the house.

"Laken is masterful at character construction as she explores issues of race and class and conveys the wreckage of individual lives and the emotions evoked by a house that is the source of joy and dreams as well as the site of tragedy." You might be interested in Mary Beth Lewis' article in the February issue of the Ann Arbor Observer on Laken's own Ann Arbor "dream house" experience.

On the theme of historic renovation, readers would find much delight in Katie Fforde's charming and witty Restoring Grace, or John Smolens' moody, suspenseful mystery, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula - Fire Point.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #142

Janice Y.K. Lee's debut novel The Piano Teacher* opens in 1952, when naive and newly married (to a minor colonial administrator) Claire Pendleton is hired by the wealthy Chen family as a piano instructor. Seduced by the lavish lifestyle of Hong Kong's expatriate community, she begins an affair with the Chen's English chauffer, Will Truesdale who is deeply marked by a tragic past during the Japanese Occupation.

Shifting back and forth between Clair's story in 1952 and Will's war-torn Hong Kong 10 years prior, the narrative is a lush examination of East-West relations and a rich and intimate look at what happens to people under extraordinary circumstances.

Readers interested in this time period might also want to check out the intensely political, thrillingly erotic, Ailing Zhang's (Eileen Chang) Lust, Caution, a novel on which a hauntingly moving and seductive Ang Lee film is based.

Others interested in the expat. experience might enjoy Oswald Wynd's The Ginger Tree (1977).

* = Starred Reviews

Audio Fabulous Fiction First #141

BBC Audiobooks production of Catherine O'Flynn's "heartbreaking, hilarious, immensely rewarding" debut novel What Was Lost* is not to be missed.

Nominated for the Man Booker Prize, the story begins with 10 year-old Kate Meaney, amateur sleuth/loner, except for the unlikely Adrian, adult son of a local shopkeeper, and Teresa, a girl who sets new standards for naughtiness. Then, one day, Kate disappears.

20 years later, two employees of the Green Oak Shopping Center where Kate doggedly set up surveillance of her bank robber "suspect" begin seeing Kate's ghost on the security camera. All at once, the many lives that were affected by her disappearance converge and collide.

As clever and engaging as Kate Atkinson's Case Histories (2004), and the latest in the Jackson Brodie series, When Will There be Good News? (2008), guaranteeing you many hours of deligthful listening.

*= Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #140

P.J. Brooke is the pen name of the husband & wife writing team of Philip O'Brien and Jane Brooke. Both active in the Scottish government, they live part of the year in the old Moorish district, the Albayzin in Granada, where Blood Wedding* is set.

First in the Sub Inspector Max Romero series, the story begins with the death of lovely Leila, a Muslim postgraduate student, found near Max's own family estate, and the prime suspect's link to a shadowy terrorist group. The mystery surrounding the death of poet Federico Garcia Lorca during the Spanish Civil War adds depth and complexity to the plot.

Compelling characters, exotic and atmospheric setting, and the smooth weaving of historical and cultural details make this a strong addition to the Euro-crime genre.

Highly recommended as a readalike for Carlos Ruiz Zafón's (author's website) The Shadow of the Wind (2004), set in Barcelona, and the Inspector Alvarez series set in Mallorca.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #139

Debut novelist Tiffany Baker's The Little Giant of Aberdeen County* is a MUST!!! on your new year reading list. (I was lucky enough to score a publisher's preview copy).

With the feel of a "New England Gothic folklore", Little Giant is the story of Truly Plaice of rural Aberdeen (New York) - a giantess from birth, orphaned at 12 and sister to beautiful Serena Jane, and an unconventional heroine with a hugh heart to match her size. Haunting the margins of Truly's story is that of Tabitha Dyerson, a rumored witch whose secrets might hold great promise for Truly.

Little Giant has "all the earmarks of a hit — infectious and lovable narrator, a dash of magic, an impressive sweep and a heartrending but not treacly family drama." This brilliant debut is a great readalike for Elizabeth McCracken's The Giant's House : a romance (1996).

* = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #138

Noted historians and university professors of American History Jane Kamensky (Brandeis) and Jill Lepore (Harvard) met as graduate students at Yale and have been friends for 20 years. Blindspot: by a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise is their first novel.

Set in 1760s Boston, originally conceived by the two authors as "a playful spoof of two genres: the picaresque, with its rogue hero exposing the hypocrisy around him, and the sentimental epistolary narrative—in this instance, a series of letters from a young 'fallen' woman to a friend," it was meant as a gift to their mentor at Yale, John Demos.

The result (accomplished mostly through email) - is an astonishingly, wildly entertaining, clever, surprising, funny, sexy, historical romance with a strong sense of time and place.

* = Starred Reviews

(Audio) Fabulous Fiction Firsts #137

In Rivka Galchen's Atmospheric Disturbances, convinced that his wife has disappeared and left behind a duplicate of herself who fools everyone else, Dr. Leo Liebenstein embarks on a quixotic journey to reclaim his lost love, an effort during which he is aided by a deluded psychiatric patient and an enigmatic meteorologist.

Critics liked this intriguing and sophisticated first novel for its startling premise and unique characters and Reader Malcolm Hillgartner's rich baritone is "perfect for the obsessed Liebenstein".

In the The Lace Reader*, Brunonia Barry's debut (first in a proposed trilogy) novel Psychic Towner Whitney reluctantly returns to her hometown of Salem, Massachusetts when her 85 year-old great-aunt suddenly disappears, and joins local cop John Rafferty in his investigation into the mystery. (Read by the prolific Alyssa Bresnahan).

Barry "combines her focus on the history of this particular community, including its witchcraft trials, religious cults, and quotidian seaport life, with her study of a fractured family seeking truth to bring us a most unusual and bewitching novel. Highly recommended. ~Library Journal.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #136

A 2007 Hopwood Awards winner, Nami Mun's debut novel Miles from Nowhere* has garnered enthusiastic praise from many critics.

Set in the 1980s, it is the coming-of-age story of Joon, a Korean-American teenage runaway. Survival means homeless shelters, jail, hunger, drugs, prostitution, and terror on the mean streets of New York, - gritty and unflinching.

“There is nothing simplistic or sensationalized here as Mun, a writer of gravitas, portrays the dispossessed and the cast-out…”. However, it is her portrayal of Joon who remains “inviolable, kind and determined”, with “a fierce survival instincts, adaptability and radiance” that carries the reader towards a hopeful ending.

*= Starred Reviews. The editors of Booklist have picked Miles as one of the First Novel Stars on their annual list.

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