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.

February Books to Films

Sophie Kinsella's bestseller Confessions of a Shopaholic is now a chick flick that would appeal to retail-therapy addicts who won't mind a bit of humor at our expense. Shopping on Madison Avenue is almost as much fun as the original London setting.

Fresh from winning the ultimate Newbery Award, one of Neil Gaiman's earlier novels comes to the silver screen as a delightful animated feature Coraline. While looking for excitement, young Coraline ventures through a mysterious door into a strange world where she must challenge a gruesome entity in order to save herself, her parents, and the souls of three others. The novel was a New York Times Bestseller, Publishers Weekly Best Book of 2002 and School Library Journal Best Book of 2002.

Based on the wildly popular He's Just Not That Into You by Greg Behrendt, this potential blockbuster tells the stories of a group of interconnected, Baltimore-based twenty- and thirtysomethings as they navigate their various relationships "from the shallow end of the dating pool through the deep, murky waters of married life", trying to read the signs of the opposite sex. With a star-studded cast, it is sure to please the movie-date crowd.

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".

The Associate by John Grisham

The Associate, although reminiscent of The Firm and not one of the best John Grisham books I have ever read, is entertaining at some points and boring at others.

Kyle McAvoy is a 25 year-old graduate of Yale Law School. Kyle has a secret from his college days that he would much rather forget. Unfortunately, his secret falls into the wrong hands, and Kyle is blackmailed into taking a job at the largest law firm in the world. He is forced to move to New York City and take a job that pays over $200,000 a year (the poor guy). Kyle must lie and steal to protect his secret because if his secret is ever found out, it could ruin his career and land him in jail.

While The Associate was an okay read, the ending was somewhat disappointing; it felt hurried and left many questions unanswered. On a scale of five stars, I would give it two and a half stars.

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.

Science Fair is beyond fun for Middle Schoolers and beyond

Science FairScience Fair

What a hilarious book! Dave Barry and Ridley Pearson bring science fairs to a whole new level in this comedy-thriller of a novel. Science Fair: a story of mystery, danger, international suspense, and a very nervous frog, features Toby and his best buds, Micah and Tamara. They battle, suffer, endure, and enjoy(?) the usual middle school happenings. Meanwhile, Grdankl the Strong, president of Kprshtskan, is plotting to take over the American government and destroy America, and plans to secretly use the kids of Hubble Middle School to activate the plan by using their Science Fair projects in an elaborate scheme.

The rich kids at Hubble cheat on their science project year after year and are able to get away with it because of who their parents are. This year’s prize is $5,000 and Toby and his friends are determined to win, not only for the money, but to stick it to the rich Manor Estate kids. Oh, and there’s that whole matter of Toby needing the money to pay off the two guys he’s being chased by, Vader and Wookie, to whom he sold some of his dad’s Star Wars memorabilia to via Ebay. Needless to say this is one fun and bumpy road to the Science Fair. Watch out for the attack robot owl!

Happy Birthday Alice Walker!

alice walkeralice walker

Happy Birthday to one of my favorite writers, Alice Walker. Born February 9, 1944, she is best known as the author of The Color Purple, which won her a Pulitzer Prize. A self-proclaimed "womanist", she is politically active in several different areas that often surface in her work: civil rights, the anti-nuclear movement, the environment, the women’s movement, and the movement to protect indigenous peoples. Her fight to end female circumcision in Africa is discussed in Warrior Marks : Female Genital Mutilation and the Sexual Blinding of Women, as well two of her fictional works The Temple of My Familiar and Possessing the Secret of Joy. Walker was the editor of I love myself when I am laughing ... and then again when I am looking mean and impressive : a Zora Neale Hurston reader and was instrumental in bringing Hurston's work back into print. She has published an impressive amount of her own work as well, including novels, short story collections, poetry, children's books, essays, and autobiographical reflections. Click here to watch Alice Walker share a poem she wrote to mark the inauguration of Barack Obama, and to see her speak with legendary 93-year-old civil rights activist and philosopher Grace Lee Boggs.

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 #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

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