Fabulous Fiction Firsts #430 - “War doesn't negate decency. It demands it, even more than in times of peace." ~ Khaled Hosseini, The Kite Runner

Architect Charles Belfoure - "an up and coming Ken Follett." (Booklist) impresses with his debut - The Paris Architect *.

1942 Paris, gifted architect Lucien Bernard took on a lucrative but dangerous commission to design a secret hiding place for a wealthy Jew. It was to be so invisible that the most determined German officer wouldn't find; a challenge he could not resist to outwit the Nazis who have occupied his beloved city.

When one careless mistake resulted in tragedy, Lucien saw the plight of the Jews through new eyes, and the commission took on new meaning.

"Belfoure's portrayal of Vichy France is both disturbing and captivating, and his beautiful tale demonstrates that while human beings are capable of great atrocities, they have a capacity for tremendous acts of courage as well." "Heart, reluctant heroism, and art blend together in this spine-chilling page-turner."

Loosely based on British author Rhidian Brook's family history, The Aftermath is the emotionally riveting story of two families, one house, and love grown from hate.

Having been appointed Governor of Pinneberg, Bristish Army Col. Lewis Morgan was charged with overseeing the rebuilding of Hamburg devastated by Allied bombing. He was to station his family in a grand house on the River Elbe. Rather than forcing its owner to vacate, Lewis insisted that the two families would share the house.

In this charged atmosphere, exacerbated by domestic stress and war-related bitterness and grief, German architect Stefan Lubert and his teenage daughter, Freda, Lewis, his wife Rachel and their surviving son Edmund were forced to confront their true selves, navigating between desires, loyalties, and the transforming power of forgiveness.

For fans of Sadie Jones' Small Wars and other historical fiction that deals with the complexity of war. The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies; and The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer immediately came to mind.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #429 - "Good books don't give up all their secrets at once" ~ Stephen King

The Bookman's Tale : a novel of obsession by Charlie Lovett is set in Hay-on-Wy where the antiquarian bookseller/restorer Peter Byerly relocates after the death of his wife, Amanda. While casually browsing in a bookshop, a portrait of Amanda stumbles out of an 18th-century study of Shakespeare forgeries. Of course, it isn't really her. The watercolor is clearly Victorian. Yet the resemblance is uncanny, and Peter becomes obsessed with learning the picture's origins. In the process, he learns the truth about his own past, and discovers a book that might definitively prove Shakespeare was, indeed, the author of all his plays.

"(A) sparkling novel and a delightful exploration of one of literature's most tantalizing mysteries with echoes of Shadow of the Wind and A.S. Byatt's Possession: a romance."

"Drawing on debates about the authorship of Shakespeare's plays as well his own experience in the cutthroat world of antiquarian books, debut author Lovett (bio.) has crafted a gripping literary mystery that is compulsively readable until the thrilling end.

"A cheerily old-fashioned entertainment." Shakespeare aficionados might further their excursion with Jennifer Lee Carrell and her Shakespearean scholar-turned-theater-director Kate Stanley thriller series.

I am totally captivated with Mark Pryor's The Bookseller : the first Hugo Marston novel (in BOCD). Hugo Marston, head of security for the U.S. embassy in Paris is at loose ends. Contemplating a visit stateside to his estranged wife, he purchases a gift for her from his friend Max, an elderly bouquinistes. When Max is abducted in broad daylight, Martston looks on powerlessly to intervene. The police is uninterested, calling it a hoax but it piqued the interest of Claudia Roux, an attractive crime reporter.

With the help of semiretired CIA agent Tom Green, Marston launches an investigation. Pressure mounts as other booksellers are found floating in the Seine, they suspect that Max's disappearance is connected somehow to his activities as a Nazi hunter, and to the precious volume now in Marston's hands.

"Pryor's (true crime blogger, D.A.Confidential) steady and engrossing debut combines Sherlockian puzzle solving with Eric Ambler-like spy intrigue... the author winningly blends contemporary crime with historical topics. Pair with Cara Black's Aimée Leduc series for both locale and tone."

Reader might also enjoy the bookseller/amateur sleuth Victor Legris series set in belle-epoque Paris by Claude Izner, the pseudonym for sisters Liliane Korb and Laurence Lefevre, both second-hand booksellers on the banks of the Seine and experts on 19th c. France.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #428 - "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one’s courage" ~ Anais Nin

The Rebellion of Miss Lucy Ann Lobdell by William Klaber is based on the real life story, (check out one of many incredible primary sources) of a 19th-century American woman who sought freedom and independence while disguised as a man.

In 1855, when no women traveled unescorted, hunted with a rifle, got paid for a back-breaking day's work, or dressed the way she wanted, Lucy Ann Lobdell hopped a train at daybreak in her brother's cast-offs, and started a new life as Joseph Lobdell, a music/dance instructor in Honesdale, Pa., far from her New York home, her disapproving family and a young daughter she had to leave behind.

As Joseph Lobdell, she finds not only a wealth of economic opportunity but also the chance to participate in intellectual and political discussions. However, the danger of being exposed meant quick escapes and sudden leave-taking, even from the woman she came to love.

"A well-crafted 'memoir' of an unforgettable person, with plenty of questions about freedom, love and responsibility."

"What makes this story stand out is the author's skill in imagining the life of a transgender woman in a time when women had virtually no power in the world and when different sexual orientations were considered grave mental illnesses. By serving as Lucy's voice —not to mention doing what was obviously a great deal of historical research, —the author becomes her advocate and encourages readers to do the same. A unique and important book. "

Reader might also be interested in Wild Life by Molly Gloss; and Women of the Frontier : 16 tales of trailblazing homesteaders, entrepreneurs, and rabble-rousers by Brandon Maire Miller for stories of strong and courageous women who seriously pushed boundaries.

An exciting parallel and just release yesterday is Elizabeth Gilbert's The Signature of All Things, "A glorious, sweeping novel of desire, ambition, and the thirst for knowledge - the story of Alma Whittaker, who bears witness to that extraordinary moment in human history when all the old assumptions about science, religion, commerce, and class were exploding into dangerous new ideas".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #427 - "One man's magic is another man's engineering..." ~ Robert A. Heinlein

This fall's BIG book (563 pp.) is Emily Croy Barker's much anticipated The Thinking Woman's Guide to Real Magic. Marketed as a readalike for Lev Grossman's The Magicians series and Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy, "...this ambitious, densely packed debut" by journalist Barker tells of a young woman's ordeal after walking through a portal into an alternate world where to survive, she must learn real magic. A dark fairy tale with plenty of curb appeal for fantasy, time-travel, and alternate-reality fans.

Nora Fischer expects Adam to propose, instead he is off to marry someone else. Once a promising academic, her dissertation is hopelessly stalled and her advisor has lost interest. During a miserable weekend at a friend's wedding, Nora wanders off and walks through a portal into a different world where she is transformed into a stunning beauty and living a fairy tale life, complete with glamor and promise of love. Then the elegant veneer shatters. Her only real ally and a reluctant one at that is the magician Aruendiel, a grim, reclusive figure with a biting tongue and a shrouded past. Under his tutelage, Nora studies magic. To their surprise, Nora's academic training and resolve makes her an apt student. When an opportunity to slip back through the portal to her former life presents itself, Nora faces a tough decision.

"Barker weaves together classic fantasy and romantic elements (including shout-outs to Pride and Prejudice and hints of Wuthering Heights) to produce a well-rounded, smooth, and subtle tale."

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #426 - For the lists-makers among us...

If it wasn't for my good friend, I might have missed The Life List, a debut novel by Michigan author Lori Nelson Speilman. It has been sitting there in my to-read pile. Too many books, you know how that is.

Set between Chicago's swanky Gold Coast and the immigrant neighborhood of Pilsen, we are swept along with a young woman in a perplexing journey in search of her adolescent dreams.

Anticipating being made CEO of her mother's multimillion-dollar cosmetics company at the reading of the will, Brett Bohlinger is instead fired and rendered almost homeless. To receive her portion of the inheritance, she is to fulfill a list of life goals her teenage self compiled, which makes the grief-stricken 34 year-old questions her mother's intention. Some of the goals are downright impossible - like establishing a relationship with a father who died 7 years ago. Others are outrageously impractical, like buying a horse and having a baby or two.

With the help and support of the handsome attorney her mother selected as executor, Brett grudgingly accepts the challenges which eventually bring her back to love, the best inheritance of all. "Spielman's debut charms as Brett briskly careens from catastrophe to disaster to enlightenment." Rights to 20 countries. Film optioned to Fox 2000.

Lists-lovers would also enjoy The Sunday List of Dreams by Kris Radish, and The Next Thing on My List by Jill Smolinski.

If you despair of storybook endings wrapped up in a shiny package, then I would suggest The Opposite of Love by Julie Buxbaum, a realistic and well-written portrait of a young woman on the cusp of having it all.

How about some unusual lists? Here are the New Yorker's "The Hundred Best Lists of All Time."

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #425 - "A good neighbor is a very desireable thing" ~ T. Jefferson

Don't pass up Amy Grace Loyd's debut novel The Affairs of Others, a quiet but intense look at the tangled lives in a Brooklyn neighborhood apartment building.

Owner of the building, a young widow still grieving from her husband's death, Celia Cassill picks her tenants for their ability to respect each other's privacy and more importantly, her solitude. Everything changes with the arrival of a summer sublet - Hope, a dazzling woman on the run from a bad marriage. As Hope slips into depression, the carefully constructed walls of Celia's world are tested and the sanctity of her building is shattered. When one of the tenants disappears, all the residents are forced to abandon their separate spaces for a far more intimate one, leading to a surprising conclusion and the promise of genuine joy.

"The Affairs of Othe is a story about the irrepressibility of life and desire, no matter the sorrows or obstacles." "Dark and sensual, with just a touch of suspense, this first novel offers a heartwrenchingly honest story about grief while still allowing for a glimmer of hope."

An executive editor at Byliner Inc. and a former fiction and literary editor at Playboy magazine, Amy is a recipient of both MacDowell and Yaddo fellowships.

A fabulously fun readalike would be Elinor Lipman's The View from Penthouse B where two middle-aged sisters become unexpected roommates in a Manhattan apartment as they recover from widowhood, divorce, and Bernie Madoff. In their reduced circumstances, they resort to take in a boarder - a handsome, gay cupcake-baker who coaches them back into the dating world.

Audio listeners might also give the heartwarming The Wildwater Walking Club a try. Author Clair Cook presents the tale of three women neighbors who share struggles with unfaithful men, rebellious children, and parental expectations while taking long walks near their homes on Wildwater Way (Seattle), a friendship marked by a road trip, a lavender festival, and a clothesline controversy.

Thinking about good neighbors brings to mind the denizens at 28 Barbary Lane, as chronicled by Armistead Maupin in his Tales of the City (1978) where Mary Ann Singleton, newly relocated to San Francisco, soon finds her life entwined with those of her varied neighbors and myriad colorful characters. This title and others to follow in the series were adapted into movies.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #424 - The Secrets They Keep

Just released this week is Burial Rites * * *, Australian novelist Hannah Kent's debut, based on the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman executed in Iceland on January 12, 1830, for the murder of 2 men.

District Commissioner Jon Jonsson was informed that Agnes Magnúsdóttir, while waiting execution, would be sent to live on his isolated farm. Arriving filthy, bruised, and bleeding, the family was at first horrified of this convicted murderer, but soon Agnes was put to work. The visits by a young priest, mysteriously chosen by Agnes to be her spiritual guardian, further complicated the tense arrangement. "Over many chilly months, with Agnes working alongside the farmer's wife and daughters in their fields and close living quarters, her version of events emerges. As her story unfolds, her hosts' fear and loathing turn to empathy and understanding."

Kent's debut novel is her "love letter to Iceland, and rarely has a country's starkness and extreme weather been rendered so exquisitely. The harshness of the landscape and the lifestyle of nineteenth-century Iceland, with its dank turf houses and meager food supply, is as finely detailed as the heartbreak and tragedy of Agnes' life."

"In the company of works by Hilary Mantel, Susan Vreeland, and Rose Tremain, this compulsively readable novel entertains while illuminating a significant but little-known true story."

"A magical exercise in artful literary fiction."

Readers might also enjoy the unsettling coming-of-age story, the latest from John Searles Help for the Haunted * * - an unforgettable story of a most unusual family, their deep secrets, and harrowing tragedy.

On a snowy February night, after receiving a late-night call, 14 yr-old Sylvia Mason and her parents head out to an old church on the outskirts of town. Leaving Sylvia left alone in the car, they disappear one after another through a red door. As her parents' singular occupation being demonologists, Sylvia is not alarmed until the sound of gunshots wakes her. Now, nearly a year later, she is ostracized by her peers, bullied by Rose -her spiteful, rebellious older sister, and being the sole witness on the fateful night - she holds the fate of the murder suspect in her unsure hands.

As the story weaves back and forth through the years leading up to that night and the months following, the ever-inquisitive Sylvie searches for answers and uncovers secrets that have haunted her family for years.

"(A) truly creepy, smart psychological thriller" that manages to capture " the vivid eeriness of Stephen King's works and the quirky tenderness of John Irving's novels."

"A somber, well-paced journey, wrapped in a mystery".

* * * = 3 starred reviews
* * = 2 starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #423 - Paris, any which way you can, but be very afraid

In Sarah Bruni's engaging debut The Night Gwen Stacy Died *, 17-year-old Sheila Gower has plans. She is moving to Paris. Misunderstood at home by her working-class family and a loner at school, she works at a small-town (Iowa) gas station where she conscientiously practices her conversational French aloud. She is attracted to the oddball cab-driver named Peter Parker, who stops in for cigarettes, and is intrigued when Peter begins to regard her as the fictional character's (Spider-Man) first girlfriend, Gwen Stacy. One night, Peter shows up with a gun...

In this "unusual and inventive love story,.. two lost souls hold the key to each other's salvation". "(F)iercely smart and delectably unpredictable...A genuine page-turner." ~ Kathryn Davis.

"Rough with dark psychology, rich with introspection and emotion, this beautifully written book will appeal to fans of Spider-Man comics as well as coming-of-age fiction."

Winner of the prestigious 2013 Crime Writers Association International Dagger Award, Pierre Lemaître's Alex * * (the first in a trilogy and his first novel to be translated into English) which the judges praised as having "(a)n original and absorbing ability to leash incredulity..., is (a) police procedural, a thriller against time, a race between hunted and hunter, and a whydunnit, written from multiple points of view..."

30-year-old Alex Prévost spots a man who clearly has been following her. That night, Alex is grabbed on a Paris street and thrown into a white van. She is savagely beaten, suspended from the ceiling of an abandoned warehouse in a tiny wooden cage filled with rats (an updated version of torture favored at the time of Louis XVI).

Meanwhile, apart from a shaky eyewitness report of the abduction, Police Commandant Camille Verhoeven has nothing to go on: no suspect, no leads, and no family or friends anxious to find a missing loved one. He knows from bitter experience (in a heartbreaking backstory) the urgency of finding the missing woman but as he uncovers the details, Camille is forced to acknowledge that the person he seeks is no ordinary victim, thus setting the investigation off in an equally disturbing direction.

Expect plenty more twists and surprises that will keep you at the edge of your seat and the pages turning. And if you have a strong stomach and nerves of steel, may I also suggest Maegan Beaumont's Carved in Darkness* ? Another FFF, and first in a projected series, set in SF, that boasts "pulse-pounding terror, graphic violence and a loathsome killer". Be very very afraid...

* = starred review
* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #422 - Spotlight on Ann Arbor Authors (with news flash!)

Words failed me in describing Matt Bell's In the House Upon the Dirt between the Lake and the Woods *. It disturbs my dreams and shows up at unguarded moments. I now see why Keith Taylor recommended it as a "must-read" this summer. (Listen to the podcast and check out the feature in Publishers Weekly).

By turn called "charmingly bizarre and disturbing ", "spare, devastating", "dark, intriguingly odd fable", it tells how a newly-wed couple relocates to a remote and desolate homestead along a lake - to live simply off the land and water, to build a house and raise a family. With each failed pregnancy, they grow more distant - the child-obsessed husband begins to rage at this new world and resent the wife whose beautiful voice could sing physical objects into existence and altering nature's course. As grief divides them, they must also separately grapple with the bear who rules their woods and the squid who dwells in their lake. A story that is "as beautiful as it is ruinous,... A tragedy of fantastic proportions".

"Bell finds whimsy in despair and reality in the absurd in this absorbingly virtuosic near fairy tale about marital struggle and personal reclamation. The result is a novel of catastrophic beauty and staggering originality. "

Formerly of Ann Arbor (a senior editor at Dzanc Books), currently an assistant professor in the English department at Northern Michigan University, Bell will be one of the speakers at this year's Kerrytown BookFest on Sunday, September 8th.

Signing at the BookFest will be local author Shirley G. Coleman, for her debut novel Mersoon Rising which the Michigan Chronicle review called a "sociopolitical space opera", that chronicles the lives and loves of the Jymirr race during an epic battle for the fate of a planet and an entire solar system.

Check out the feature story in the September 4th issue of the Ann Arbor Journal on Ms. Coleman, and Mersoon being the first title published by Plenary's Wild Seed Press imprint, which honors the late Octavia Butler, and is dedicated to publishing black American authors.

Click here for the BookFest event schedule.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #421 - "I see your face in every flower, your eyes in stars above ..."

Sarah Butler's Ten Things I've Learnt about Love * is the interwoven story of Alice and Daniel. It is a story about finding love in unexpected places, about rootlessness and homecoming, and the power of the ties that bind.

Alice, the youngest of three daughters, rushes from Mongolia to her father's London home just in time to say goodbye. Never close to any of her family, she is drawn to solitary travel and an unconventional career. Daniel is homeless, wandering the streets of London, making sculptures out of found objects. As his health is failing, he is kept alive by the knowledge that he has a daughter somewhere in the world from a long ago affair with a married woman.

The narrative alternates between Alice's and Daniel's perspectives as both struggle with self-forgiveness—. Unbeknownst to each other, they are both fond of creating "Top 10 Lists".

"Spare language and an atmosphere of foreboding will keep readers on tenterhooks. Whimsy and pathos, artfully melded."

Longlisted for the Orange Prize, Anna Stothard's (Oxford) "gritty but elegant U.S. debut" The Pink Hotel is also a New York Times Review Editors' Choice.

An unnamed seventeen-year-old girl pieces together the mystery of her mother Lily's life and death among the seedy bars and bedrooms half a world away from her father's London home. At the raucous and drug-fueled wake, held at a boutique hotel on Venice Beach (CA), she walks off with an old suitcase stuffed with Lily's clothes, letters, and photographs, as she begins an emotional scavenger hunt, trying to piece together the woman who abandoned her years ago, and finds unexpected love along the way.

"Told with high style and noirish flare, The Pink Hotel is a powerfully evocative debut novel about wish fulfillment, reckless impulse, and how we discover ourselves.

Award-winning British YA and children's author Sophie McKenzie makes her US debut with her first psychological thriller for adults Close My Eyes.

Geniver Loxley has never gotten over losing her daughter, a stillborn eight years ago while rounds of fertility treatment have failed. One day, a woman knocks on her door and claims that her daughter is alive, having been taken away as a healthy infant, and worse yet, her husband Art, successful and powerful, is in on the scheme. Reeling from the shocking news she turns to free-spirited Lorcan, an old colleague of Art's. As the two investigate, they discover some shocking secrets that put their lives in jeopardy.

However, nothing will prepare the reader for the chilling epilogue, a dark and twisted scenario that is the definite high point of the novel. So consider yourself warned.

* = starred review

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