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

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #420 - Sugar 'n spice and everything nice?

Well, I'll let you be the judge. But seriously, 2 phenomenal debuts from across the pond, with unforgettable young protagonists, not to be missed.

A published poet, and one of Granta's Best Young British Novelists Jenni Fagan knocked it out of the park with her dazzling The Panopticon * *, which has been named one of the best books of the year by the Times Literary Supplement and The Scotsman.

Anais Hendricks, 15 is headed for the Panopticon, the much dreaded last-resort for chronic young offenders after she is found covered with the blood of a police officer. Violent, "permanently whacked on...drug(s)", and the product of foster homes (23 before she turned 7), she is a survivor and a counter-culture outlaw. Though experience taught her to only rely on herself, she finds a sense of belonging among the residents of the Panopticon, and soon forms strong bonds with the other troubled teens. Their struggle is with their keepers, especially when Anais is convinced she is part of a sinister experiment.

"Dark and disturbing but also exciting and moving thanks to a memorable heroine and vividly atmospheric prose."

"Anais's story is one of abandonment, loss, and redemption."

2013 Thriller Award nominee for Best Paperback Original Novel, Alex Marwood's (the pseudonym of a successful journalist) debut The Wicked Girls * * * is "(a) gritty, psychological thriller that asks the question: How well can you know anyone?"

On a fateful summer morning in 1986, 11 year-olds Jade Walker and Annabel (Bel) Oldacre meet for the first time. By the end of the day, they will both be charged with murder. Journalist Kirsty Lindsay, while following leads on a series of attacks on young female tourists in a seaside vacation town comes face to face with Amber Gordon, now a janitor for a carnival where the most recent crime is committed. This is their first meeting in 25 years after spending years in two separate British correctional facilities.

Kirsty and Amber, with new, vastly different lives, and unknowing families to protect, are desperate to keep their wicked secret hidden, and to uphold their probationary condition never to have contact with each other.

Marwood intersperses the contemporary serial-killer story line and hour-by-hour accounts of what happened the day the girls met 25 years ago. "This chilling debut is chock-full of surprises. If Tana French and Gillian Flynn stayed up all night telling stories at an abandoned amusement park, this is awfully close to what they might come up with."

"Gripping and fast-paced", it will appeal to fans of the Academy Award-nominated film Heavenly Creatures and the novels of Rosamund Lupton and Chevy Stevens."

"A suspenseful, buzz-worthy novel offering a sure-footed depiction of two women who lost their childhoods."

* * * = starred reviews
* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #419 and Other Innocents Abroad

Literary critic and journalist Caleb Crain (author profile), in his exquisite debut novel Necessary Errors brilliantly captures the lives and romances of young expatriates in newly democratic Prague.

Just a year too late to witness The Velvet Revolution, recent grad Jacob Putnam (Harvard) arrives in Prague to discover a country at a crossroads between communism and capitalism, and a picturesque city overflowing with a vibrant, searching sense of possibility. As the men and women Jacob meets begin to fall in love with one another, no one turns out to be quite the same as the idea Jacob has of them - that includes Jacob himself.

This coming-of-age novel, "(s)himmering and expansive" makes immediate the turbulent feelings and discoveries of youth as it transits toward adulthood, when chance encounters will grow into lasting relationships. Jacob's sexual identity meets with acceptance, a lonely and secretive life begins to blossom.

"Crain creates a compelling and heartfelt story that captures both the boundless enthusiasm and naïveté of youth... the detailed descriptions of Prague and Czech culture, in general, are sure to please those interested in this fascinating period in Eastern European history. Fans of Ben Lerner's Leaving the Atocha Station (another FFF from an award-winner) will find themselves similarly enchanted here."

In Kerrigan in Copenhagen : a love story, (a follow-up to the In the Company of Angels and Falling Sideways) by Thomas Kennedy, while researching for a guidebook about the pubs in Copenhagen, American expat Kerrigan consumes endless drinks that only in part numb his memories of a brutal family tragedy, a situation further complicated by his voluptuous research assistant. "(A) deeply human, Joycean romp through a magical city-its people, history, literature, and culture".

Petite Anglaise : a true story Catherine Sanderson recounts in delightful tone how she dealt with motherhood, a stale romance, and the daily grind of life in the City of Light by starting a blog under the name Petite Anglaise, which became an outlet for her reflections on expatriate life, her most intimate desires, her personal identity, and her quest to integrate her real life and her virtual one.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #418 - You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss...

In Kiss Me First *, Lottie Moggach's chilling and intense debut, sheltered and isolated, twentysomething Leila is deeply drawn into Red Pill, an online community where she finally finds people who understand her, and is thrilled when the website's brilliant and elusive founder Adrian Dervish asks to meet.

When Adrian proposes that she join the "Project Tess", Leila becomes totally immersed in the world of the beautiful, urbane, and witty Tess through constant e-mail, chat, and Skype in order for Leila to assume Tess's identity online, thus allowing Tess to make the desperate move to end her life. As Leila basks in the pleasures of creating a new fictional life for Tess, Tess's old boyfriend, Connor, makes contact, and Leila finds herself in way over her head.

London journalist/writer (Financial Times, Time Out, Elle, and GQ) crafted a taut psychological thriller that is ingeniously plotted, brilliantly frightening, and a compulsively readable, complex character study about identity, lies we tell ourselves and others.

Don't Kiss Me : stories is an explosive story collection from a bold, blistering new voice - Lindsay Hunter.

We meet Peggy Paula who envies the popular girls whom she waits on at Perkins. Sidelined during a high-school dance, a group of girls recalls exploring each other's bodies in the locker room. A grown woman studies relationship magazines to help decode her complicated nine-year-old boyfriend. A retired Richard Nixon, lamenting his wife's aging body, flirts with an admirer while sipping Scotch on the beach and dreaming of Jackie Kennedy. A lonely spinster nurtures stray cats until she receives a visit not from her Indonesian crush but from Animal Control. A band of misfits living in a roaming RV survives on road kill and stolen goods.

"By turns crass and tender, heartbreaking and devastatingly funny, her stories expose a world full of characters seemingly driven by desperation, but in the end, they're the ones who get the last laugh".

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #417

May 11, 2011, 9 days after the Osama bin Laden raid, Sara, a single mother living quietly in Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania, is thrown under media spotlight when Jason, her Navy SEAL son, has gone missing in action on a top-secret mission.

In Lea Carpenter's Eleven Days *, "a powerful and lean, astonishing first novel", a series of flashbacks and letters from Jason, we learn about a young and care-free Sara's love affair with Jason's father - an older career diplomat who was killed; Sara's dream for the Ivy-bound Jason with a career on the Hill in his father's footstep.

The events of 9/11 changed all that. Jason enlisted.

Through his letters home, we sense a strong, compassionate leader who is wise beyond his years and modest about his abilities., and it is these extraordinary qualities that made him a perfect match for the most dangerous assignments.

"(W)ith equal measures of intellect and heartbreak... Lea Carpenter, a dazzling new talent with the kind of strong and distinctive voice that comes along all too rarely, has given us a thrilling and unforgettable story."

"A powerful first novel and inside look into the making of a Navy SEAL and a portrait of the strength and courage of both mother and son."

"Among the smartest of the batch of recent American war novels".

For a insider's look at the making of a SEAL, try Fearless: The Undaunted Courage and Ultimate Sacrifice of Navy SEAL Team SIX Operator Adam Brown by Eric Blehm.

* = starred review

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