Fabulous Fiction Firsts #304

My reading gets downright frantic when the "Best Of" lists start showing up at the end of the year. Glad this one made the lists.

Named by both the Kirkus Reviews' as one of the Best of 2011 Mysteries, and a Library Journal Best Mystery of 2011 Stealing Mona Lisa * * was published to coincide with the 100th Anniversary of the theft of the most recognized painting in the world from the Louvre in 1911.

First-time novelist Carson Morton (professional musician, screenwriter, and playwright), "smoothly blends fact and fiction while evocatively exploring the era's seamy underbelly."

Paris, 1925. On his death bed the Marquis Eduardo de Valfierno recounts to a young reporter his audacious plan to steal the Mona Lisa, and the elaborate scheme to pass 6 forged copies off into the hands of American tycoons with insatiable appetite for the unattainable. As well orchestrated as the plan was, it was undone by nature - human and otherwise, when "love, lust, jealousy, greed, and murderous revenge come into play, along with excessive rains and the worst flooding in contemporary Paris history."

Stealing Mona Lisa is a "sophisticated, engaging caper, complete with a richly imagined group of con artists and a historical mystery that will keep you guessing until the very end." The twisty conclusion will leave you wondering about the authenticity of the art on museum walls !!

For a historical account of the famous heist and largely unsolved mystery, try R.A. Scotti's Vanished Smile: the mysterious theft of Mona Lisa (also in audio).

The Crimes of Paris: A True Story of Murder, Theft, and Detection by Dorothy and Thomas Hoobler is "part fast-paced thriller and part social history," and an unwieldy and engrossing account of life and crime in belle époque Paris, with the 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa serving as the centerpiece.

One last thing...do allow for the author's exercise of artistic license with the chronology of the Paris flood which actually took place the previous year, as captured in these vintage photos. You might also find fascinating Paris Under Water : how the city of light survived the great flood of 1910 by Jeffrey H. Jackson.

* * = starred reviews

More December's Books to Film

Steven Spielberg directs Jeremy Irvine, Emily Watson and David Thewlis in War Horse (PG-13), based on the novel by Michael Morpurgo - a tale of loyalty, hope and tenacity set against a sweeping canvas of rural England and Europe during the First World War.

It begins with the remarkable friendship between a horse named Joey and a young man called Albert, who tames and trains him. When they are forcefully parted, the film follows the extraordinary journey of the horse as he moves through the war, changing and inspiring the lives of all those he meets.

John le Carré's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is adapted by Director Tomas Alfredson for Universal Pictures into a feature film starring Gary Oldman, Colin Firth, and Tom Hardy.

This international espionage action-thriller is set at the height of the Cold War when George Smiley, a disgraced British spy, is rehired in secret by his government in fear that MI-6 has been compromised by a double agent working for the Soviets.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #301

British historian (Aristocrats: Caroline, Emily, Louisa, And Sarah Lennox, 1740-1832, which was made into a television mini series in 1999) Stella Tillyard brings a dramatic flare to her well-crafted and meticulously researched debut novel Tides of War * .

Set in Regency England, this epic tale rides the line between romance and adventure. Newly married and charmingly unconventional Harriet is left behind when husband James leaves to fight alongside the Duke of Wellington at the Peninsular War (1812-15) in Spain. As Harriet befriends the older and protective Kitty, Lady Wellington, her life begins to change in unexpected ways. Meanwhile, James is seduced by the violence of battle, and then by Camile Florens.

"With dazzling skill Stella Tillyard explores not only the effects of war on the men at the front but also the freedoms it offers the women left behind." We watch as the city of London - a city in love with science, the machine, and money ushers in modernity. Characters real and fictional such as émigrés investor/banker Nathan Rothschild, scientist Frederick Winsor, Spanish artist Francisco Goya, and Surgeon General James McGrigor add verisimilitude to the layered plot.

This debut novel will delight fans of Bernard Cornwell who like their historicals fast-paced and action-packed. Cecelia Holland and Philippa Gregory fans would appreciate the romance element and gorgeous period details.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #300

How often would one come across a novel inspired by execution? One that was a runaway bestseller in Germany when it was first released, and sold over 200,000 copies in the U.S. as an Amazon e-book? I could only think of one.

Time: 1659
Setting: Shongua, an impoverish Bavarian village ravaged by war, plague and time
The Novel: The Hangman's Daughter

When a dying boy pulled from the river bears an ancient mark crudely tattooed on his shoulder, the local midwife is quickly accused of witchcraft. Hangman Jakob Kuisl is called upon to coerce a confession out of her (by torture if necessary), to spare the village of fear and dark memories. When more children disappear, the mounting hysteria threatens to erupt into chaos. Jakob is convinced that the midwife is innocence but his might be the lone voice of reason if not for his clever and headstrong daughter Magdelena and Simon, the university-educated son of the town's physician (who is hopelessly in love with Magdelena against convention and his father's wishes). The three must race against the clock to unravel the truth, catch the real killer in order to prevent further bloodshed. In the meantime, they unknowingly place themselves in the path of true evil.

"Taking us back in history to a place where autopsies were blasphemous, coffee was an exotic drink, dried toads were the recommended remedy for the plague, and the devil was as real as anything, The Hangman’s Daughter brings to cinematic life the sights, sounds, and smells of seventeenth-century Bavaria", telling the engrossing story of a compassionate and courageous man.

"Pötzsch... delivers a fantastically fast-paced read, rife with details on the social and power structures in the town as well as dichotomy between university medicine and the traditional remedies, which are skillfully communicated through character interactions, particularly that of Magdalena and Simon. The shocking motivations from unlikely players provide for a twist that will leave readers admiring this complex tale from a talented new voice."

Debut novelist Oliver Pötzsch descends from the Kuisls, a well-known line of Bavarian executioners who beheaded prisoners by sword. There were 14 hangmen in the family, spanning the 16th to 19th centuries. Each inheriting the profession from his father, and each had to undergo a rigorous training that culminated in the executioner’s having to produce a “masterpiece” beheading in order to receive proper certification.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #299

Former TIME Jerusalem Bureau Chief Matt Rees, known for his award-winning Omar Yussef mystery series set in modern day Palestine, now brings to his devoted readers a historical stand-alone set in late 18th century Vienna.

When Madame Maria Anna Berchtold von Sonnenburg (known to her family as Nannerl) received news of her estranged younger brother Amadeus Mozart's death in December 1791, she rushed to Vienna to pay her final respect. Grief turned to suspicion as Nannerl learned that Mozart told his wife he was being poisoned. Soon she found herself ensnared in a web of intrigue and drama among jealous lovers, sinister creditors, rival composers, secret societies and came to learn a side of her brother she had not known.

In Mozart's Last Aria *, "Rees nails the details of Mozart's Vienna with precision, seasoning his story with musical details that will delight fans of classical music. The author renders Nannerl very sympathetic and teases in a touch of romance that is both bittersweet and unexpected. ... A beautiful book illuminated by the author's own musical background that moves slowly and deliberately to a fine conclusion. "

For historical mystery with a strong sense of place and a touch or romance, try also works by Deanna Raybourn and C.S. Harris.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #295

Now for something fun... try The Scrapbook of Frankie Pratt: a novel in pictures * by novelist Caroline Preston. It is the first of its kind - a scrapbook novel.

Former archivist at Harvard's Houghton Library, Preston pulls together her personal collection of vintage postcards, letters, magazine ads, ticket stubs, catalog pages, fabric swatches, candy wrappers, fashion spreads, menus and other prized ephemera to create an engaging Frankie Pratt as she makes her way in the dazzling world of the1920s. Preston chronicles Frankie's growing up a small New England town, the grief of losing her father, crossing paths with the likes of “Vincent” (Edna St. Vincent Millay) at Vassar, meeting exiled Russian princes, living free and wild in Paris as she searches for success and love.

"Lighter than lightweight but undeniably fun, largely because Preston is having so much fun herself." A total pleasure and visual feast. Definitely for scrapbookers and vintage hobbyist.

* = starred review

Balogh Fans Rejoyce, Dudley Prequel Released

Bestselling Welsh-Canadian author Mary Balogh has completed her three book "Mistress," or "Dudley," series with the recently published The Secret Mistress. Known for her thoroughly developed regency sagas, Balogh finally provided her fans with the story of Angeline Dudley and The Earl of Heywood (Edward Ailsbury).

Angeline Dudley, sister to the Duke of Tresham, is naïve and youthfully exuberant to the point of disapproval by this year’s most eligible bachelor, the Earl of Heywood. After his brother is killed in a curricle race, Edward is happy to do his familial duty of taking over as earl and doing what is proper: marrying and procuring heirs. Angeline, having met Edward's good friend Eunice Goddard, is determined in her scheme to see the two of them married. Little does she realize that there is a plot to see her settled with the stodgy, stick in the mud earl.

While Balogh’s novels are not fast paced, they have fantastic characterization and landscaping for novels of the romance genre. The storylines are developed enough to be believable and contain charm and wit to boot. Balogh is best known for her "Slightly" series about the Bedwyn family, the "Simply" series and her books about the Huxtable family.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #288

At long last, got my copy of Rules of Civility * by debut novelist Amor Towles. Mesmerized by the seductive language and imagery, my lunch temporarily forgotten, I found myself at MOMA at the 1966 Walker Evans' Exhibition Many Are Called, of photos taken on the New York City subways in the 1930s with a hidden camera.

Narrator Katey Kontent is at the opening with her husband Val, who has no knowledge of Katey's connection to one of Evan's subjects - Tinker Grey, and Katey is intent on keeping her secrets private.

New Years Eve 1937, the 25 year old Katey and roommate Eve Ross met Tinker Grey, a handsome patrician banker with easy charm at a Greenwich Village jazz bar, this chance encounter would alter the course of their lives.

The title, taken from George Washington's Rules of Civility & Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation (see appendix) is a reminder that how spur-of-the-moment decisions could define one's future, and bear in mind always, Rule #110, that the "Little Spark of Celestial fire Called Conscience".

"Elegant and captivating... , Rule of Civility is remarkable for its strong narrative, original characters and a voice influenced by Fitzgerald and Capote, but clearly true to itself". It is also a tribute and a kaleidoscopic portrait of arty-boozy-jazz-aged Manhattan in the late1930s when an optimistic nation was rising out of the Depression and the world was being drawn into another war. Amidst the prosperity, the contrast between the working masses and privileged class was never more stark.

Snappy dialogue and descriptive prose, wrapped in a compelling narrative would please Edith Wharton readers. Also try Louis Auchincloss. His Manhattan Monologues and East Side Story (among his 60 works) will affirm his rightful claim as the "chronicler of New York's Upper Crust" and the master of manners.

* = Starred review. (Here are links to reviews in USA Today and The New York Times).

July's Books to Film (and a nice way to get out of the heat)

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is based on the novel by Lisa See.
China. Parallel stories, generations apart. Two young girls bound together by circumstances, history, and a secret language written on the folds of a white silk fan.

Sarah's Key is based on the novel by Tatiana de Rosnay.
Paris, July 1942: 10 yr.old Sarah locks her younger brother in a secret hiding place to save him from the Nazi round-up. Sixty-seven years later, Julia Jarmond, an American journalist stumbles onto a trail of secrets that link her to Sarah, and to questions about her own romantic future.

The film Cowboys & Aliens is adapted from Scott Mitchell Rosenberg's work of the same title.
1873. Arizona Territory. A stranger with no memory of his past stumbles into the hard desert town of Absolution, a town that lives in fear. But this stranger the town rejects might just be the only hope from the marauders from the sky.

Based on the real-life experience of Iraqi army lieutenant Latif Yahia as detailed in his book I was Saddam's Son, The Devil's Double recounts how he was ordered to become the body double to Saddam's son- the notorious "Black Prince" Uday Hussein, a reckless, sadistic party-boy with a rabid hunger for sex and brutality.

Good Neighbors is based on Chere Voisine by Chrystine Brouillet.
Neighbors Spencer and Louise have bonded over their fascination with a recent string of murders. When Victor moves in, they hit it off. But as they soon discover, each of them has their own dark secret. What they once thought of as a safe haven is as dangerous as any outside terrors they could imagine.

The First Avenger: Captain America is based on the Marvel Comics series by Ed Brubaker.
Steve Rogers volunteers to participate in an experimental program that turns him into the Super Soldier known as Captain America, joining forces with Bucky Barnes and Peggy Carter to wage war on the evil HYDRA organization, led by the villainous Red Skull.

Author Birthdays: Stone, Garfield, Howatch

July 14th marks the birthday of authors Irving Stone, Leon Garfield, and Susan Howatch.

Irving Stone was an American historical fiction author. His most well known novel may be The Agony and the Ecstasy, a book about the Renaissance artist Michelangelo. The book was also made into a movie starring Charlton Heston.

Stone's main works are all fictionalized biographies. In addition to Michelangelo, he also wrote books on artists Vincent Van Gogh and Camille Pissarro. The novel of Van Gogh was also made into a movie.

Leon Garfield was a British children's historical fiction writer. He also adapted many Shakespearean tales for children, which we have in both written and audio formats, as well as the television show Shakespeare: The Animated Tales.

Garfield's original works include Smith, which is about a 18th century London pickpocket, and The Empty Sleeve, a ghost story featuring protagonist twins.

Susan Howatch is a British fiction writer known for her family sagas and religious themes. Her most popular series is probably the Starbridge Series of six books about a fictional Anglican diocese called Starbridge. The first book in the series is Glittering Images.

Howatch also wrote many stand-alone books. These include The Waiting Sands, which Library Journal described as "three tales of romantic suspense," and Penmarric, a novel set in medieval Cornwall.

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