Fabulous Fiction Firsts #210: Fresh Asian-American Voices

Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok is an inspiring debut , drawn from personal experience about a young immigrant from Hong Kong, who is caught between the pressure to succeed in America, duty to her family, and her own personal desires.

An exceptional student and yet shy and proud, Kimberly Chang and her mother are tricked into back-breaking factory work and living in squalor. In simple, searing, richly detailed prose, Kwok captures the anguish of the struggle, the universal immigrant lament of not fitting in, misunderstanding and cultural disconnect that is wrenching and hilarious at times. Girl is a moving tale of hardship and triumph, heartbreak and love. A good book group choice with reading group guide. Don't miss the author's interesting bio..

Sonya Chung's exquisite debut Long for This World** is a multi-layered story of two brothers, distanced by time and differences. When American surgeon Han Hyun-ku unexpectedly arrives at his younger brother's home in a remote island in South Korean, he leaves behind a floundering marriage and a troubled son. His daughter, Jane, a renowned photojournalist searches for him and they are quickly absorbed into the Korean Han's household where surface tranquility masks dark and volatile undercurrents.

"Moving between landscapes and a variety of perspectives, Chung's ambitious debut explores the intricacies and aggravations of family, culture, and identity." With reading group guide as well.

Sonya Chung is a recipient of a Pushcart Prize nomination, the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, and the Bronx Council on the Arts Writers’ Fellowship & Residency. In fall 2010, Sonya will join the full-time faculty of the Creative Writing Program at Columbia University.

Readalikes: Typical American by Gish Jen for the Asian-American immigrant experience; and The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak for the secrets families keep; and how one "can't go home again".

** = Starred reviews

May Books to Film, Already in Theaters

Iron Man 2 is based on Marvel’s Iron Man comic series. In this sequel, billionaire industrialist Tony Stark, now a famous high-tech superhero comes up against the U.S. military’s demands to control the most powerful weapon on earth -- the Iron Man suit, while being hunted by a vengeful Russian criminal with some lethal technology of his own. Meanwhile, he could no longer count on his beautiful new assistant or best friend, Rhodey who are hatching their own strange, mysterious agendas.

Letters to Juliet is adapted from Lise Friedman's Letters to Juliet: celebrating Shakespeare’s greatest heroine, the magical city of Verona, and the power of love - an enchanting love story of encountering new sparks and rekindling old flames. (The scenery isn't bad either).

When Sophie, a young American, travels to Verona, Italy -- the romantic city where Romeo first met Juliet -- she meets a group of volunteers who respond to letters written to Juliet seeking romantic advice. Sophie finds and answers a letter that has been lost for 50 years, and is stunned when its author Claire arrives in Italy with her handsome but overprotective grandson to find the man she left decades before. Fascinated by Claire's quest, Sophie joins them on an adventure through the beautiful hills of Tuscany searching for Claire's long lost Lorenzo.

Over the years, there have been various big screen and television interpretations of the legend of Robin Hood – from the recent TV series; Mel Brooks’ farcical Robin Hood Men in Tights; to Errol Flynn’s 1938 iconic The Adventures of Robin Hood. Now see Russell Crowe as a beefy Robin Hood .

Instead, fantasy and alternative history fan might opt to try Hood : The Legend Begins Anew by Stephen R. Lawhead. In this first of the King Raven Trilogy, Hood tells the story of an alternative Robin Hood. Steeped in Celtic mythology and the political intrigue of medieval Britain, the familiar tale takes on new life, fresh meaning, and an unexpected setting – “ …(a) highly imaginative, earthy adventure that has little to do with Errol Flynn but is just as rousing”.

Author Birthdays: Eoin Colfer

Today, May 14th, is the birthday of Irish author Eoin Colfer.

Perhaps best known for his Artemis Fowl series, Colfer has been on the New York Times Best Sellers list many times over.

In 2008, Colfer wrote Airman, a teen novel which Publisher's Weekly believes is "An homage both to the 19th-century science fiction of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and to the superheroes of Marvel and DC comics..."

More recently Colfer has written a sixth book, And Another Thing... for Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy series.

One of his most interesting recent works is the collaborative novel Click. Published in 2007, it is the work of ten well-loved authors, including Colfer. Each of the authors, including such greats as Linda Sue Park, Gregory Maguire, and Tim Wynne-Jones, wrote a chapter of the life and impact of a photographer named George Keane. Also, the royalties for the book are donated to Amnesty International.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #209

Michele Young-Stone's debut The Handbook for Lightning Strike Survivors** moves smoothly between parallel stories of two unlucky young lives affected by lightning strikes.

13 year-old Buckley Pitank watches as his mother, abused and worn down by a hard life, is finally looking at love and happiness, only to be fatally struck by lightning. Becca Burke, an 8 year-old lightning strike survivor must endure a volatile and unstable home life. Unknown to each other, Becca and Buckley, lonely and disaffected, spend the next 20-some year coming to grips with the aftermath of these incidents, before they inevitably cross paths through the clever conceit of the handbook in the title.

"Young-Stone is a very fine writer who has created a host of endearing losers, young, old, literate, and simple, all full of longing". A powerful, beautiful first novel. The author earned her MFA in fiction writing from Virginia Commonwealth University. Once, many years ago, she was struck by lightning in her driveway. She survived.

Readers interested in the effect of lightning strikes should also look at Tracy Chevalier's Remarkable Creatures (2010). Readers interested in exploring hardship, survival, loss and hope for those left behind by a catastrophe should give Lark and Termite (2009) a try. (NPR review).

** = Starred reviews

International Nurses Day

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May 12th is International Nurses Day. The day was chosen in honor of the birthday of Florence Nightingale.

In celebration of all the wonderful care nurses give, you could watch a DVD, maybe something likeM*A*S*H, which focuses on a medical unit during the conflict in Korea, or you could watch the 1957 film version of Hemingway's A Farewell to Arms.

Or you could read a factual book. There are biographies on women like Florence Nightingale, Mildred MacGregor, and Clara Barton. There are also more general works, such as one on WWII nurses and even one or two on how to become a nurse.

The Song of the Lioness

Teen author Tamora Pierce's quartet, The Song of the Lioness, is a great fantasy series for independent young girls becoming young women.

The series starts out with the book Alanna: The First Adventure. In it, we meet Alanna, the young daughter of a nobleman, who wishes to become a knight, which is traditionally a role for sons. Alanna decides to disguise herself as a boy in order to achieve her dream, and the story follows Alanna through the steps of page and squire. We meet many characters, all of whom will warm the coldest heart, especially the king of thieves, George Cooper, and one of Alanna's instructors, Sir Myles.

The second book, In the Hand of the Goddess, picks up with Alanna still as a squire. The main plot of this one is a war between Alanna's country and a neighboring one, as well as Alanna's desire to be able to behave as a girl, and to be able to love. At the end, we go with Alanna as she faces the Ordeal, which will either make her a knight, drive her away, or even kill her.

However, if you realize that there is a third book, you'll figure out that the killing won't happen. In The Woman Who Rides Like a Man, Alanna has started out on her quest as a lady knight, and encounters the renegade tribes of desert people in the South. There is no huge villain or battle in this book, but there is a pretty good quarrel.

The last book, Lioness Rampant follows the third very well. It introduces us to new friends, brings us a really cool treasure, and shows us that Alanna has finally grown accustomed to her womanhood. Unlike the third, there is an epic battle, which will most likely leave you crying.

Any girl who likes a strong, female heroine, as well as a good dose of magic, a talking cat, and maybe a wee bit of witty romance, will find this series as one she cannot put down. I know I'm going to be reading the next series that takes place in Tortall, The Immortals.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #208

Winner of the 2008 Man Asian Literary Prize, Miguel Syjuco's impressive debut Ilustrado*** (see definition) is most worthy of the buzz.

The panel of judges proclaimed it "brilliantly conceived and stylishly executed, ...ceaselessly entertaining, frequently raunchy, and effervescent with humor".

It begins with a body. On a clear day in winter, the battered corpse of Crispin Salvador is pulled from the Hudson River. Gone is the controversial lion of Philippine literature as well as is the only manuscript of his final book, a work meant to rescue him from obscurity by exposing the crimes of the Filipino ruling families.

Miguel, his student and only friend, embarks on a literary archeological dig - through Crispin's poetry, interviews, novels, polemics, and memoirs. The result is a rich and dramatic family saga, tracing 150 years of history of The Philippines. To our great surprise, the story bring us full circle to young Miguel.

"Exuberant and wise, wildly funny and deeply moving, Ilustrado explores the hidden truths that haunt every family. It is a daring and inventive debut by a new writer of astonishing talent."

Born in 1976 in Makati, Miguel Syjuco lived in many cities of the world since his undergraduate days at Ateneo de Manila University. With a master’s at Columbia University, PhD at the University of Adelaide (Australia), he currently lives in Montreal. He had worked in many jobs, from editor of a dotcom, bartender, apartment painter to powerseller of ladies’ designer handbags on eBay until February 2009 when he focused full time on his writing.

Readalike: Homecoming* by Bernhard Schlink - another epistolary novel about history, identity, deception, and discovery.

*** = starred reviews

Happy birthday, Lois Duncan!

Today marks the birthday of American novelist Lois Duncan.

Perhaps best known for her teen suspense and mystery fiction, Duncan has also held a more lighthearted pen in such works as the children's book Hotel for Dogs (perhaps better known for the screen adaptation) and a picture book called Songs of the Circus.

However, her teen novels were her biggest hit, and they are quite entrancing. My favorites include few of the ones not adapted for the screen--Gallows Hill and Down a Dark Hall. Gallows Hill features Sarah, a girl who is suspected by her peers of being a witch, which leads her into an investigation of the Salem Witch Trials. Down a Dark Hall tells the story of a young girl named Kit and her eerie encounters at a new boarding school.

One story of Duncan's that might sound more familiar would be Killing Mr. Griffin, the tale of high school students who kidnap their English teacher, which was made into a TV movie in 1997.

The most well-known may also be the least best example of her work. I Know What You Did Last Summer was turned into a movie, but Duncan had no part in the creation of the film, and actually did not like the final product.

Perhaps most representative is the true story of Lois Duncan's search for her own daughter's killer, Who Killed My Daughter?.

Steampunk Discovered (and rediscovered)

If you (like me) are new to Steampunk, here is a good definition : "A subgenre of science fiction, it typically (but not always) employs a Victorian setting where steam power and advanced technologies like computers coexist and often features themes, such as secret societies, found in mystery novels."

Though steampunk has been around since the 1980s, (check out these classics) there is a recent crop of exemplary new titles. A personal favorite is Boneshaker by Cherie Priest - a must-read for alternative history fan. It's the 2009 winner of the PNBA Award; and has been nominated for the 2010 Hugo and the Nebula Awards.

Seattle, 1860, rumors of gold, greedy Russians and inventor Leviticus Blue's Incredible Bone-Shaking Drill Engine set the stage for this "impressive and auspicious genre-hopping adventure". When this machine inadvertently triggers the release of a deadly gas that transforms people into the living dead, a wall is built around the uninhabitable city to contain the epidemic. 16 years later, teenage Zeke Wilkes, Blue's son, impetuously decides that he must go into the walled city to clear his father's name. His distraught mother Briar, follows in an airship to try to rescue him.

Boneshaker is exceptionally well written. The plot credibly builds around zombies, steampunk technology, underground societies, mad scientists in a mix of horror/mystery. The fast-paced action is balanced by captivating characters, a strong female protagonist, and tender mother-child relationship. The young courageous Zeke will appeal to the YA crowd.

I first discovered the versatile YA author and an associate editor for Subterranean Press Cherie Priest in her genre-bending adult debut Fathom : a chill/thrill fantasy tale set in her native Florida. Part fairy tale, part modern gothic horror, it had me sleepless for a week.

April's Book to Film

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Peter Cameron's 2002 novel The City of Your Final Destination** has been adapted by award-winning screenwriter and novelist Ruth Prawer Jhabvala into the latest James Ivory film (official website).

"Witty, intelligent, engrossing", the novel (and the film) centers on Omar Razaghi, an Iranian-born graduate student whose financial aid for a fellowship is contingent on writing an authorized biography of the deceased Latin American author Jules Gund. Shortly into the first semester of the fellowship, Gund's estate unexpectedly denies Omar authorization which prompted his travel to Uruguay in order to petition the executors to change their minds. The executors are a delightfully odd lot, each self-possessed and deeply flawed. And it is among them that Omar finds both true love and a new home.

Anthony Hopkins, Laura Linney, and Charlotte Gainsbourg star. Opening this weekend in select cities. (See the New York Times review).

** = Starred reviews

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