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.

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 #138

Noted historians and university professors of American History Jane Kamensky (Brandeis) and Jill Lepore (Harvard) met as graduate students at Yale and have been friends for 20 years. Blindspot: by a Gentleman in Exile and a Lady in Disguise is their first novel.

Set in 1760s Boston, originally conceived by the two authors as "a playful spoof of two genres: the picaresque, with its rogue hero exposing the hypocrisy around him, and the sentimental epistolary narrative—in this instance, a series of letters from a young 'fallen' woman to a friend," it was meant as a gift to their mentor at Yale, John Demos.

The result (accomplished mostly through email) - is an astonishingly, wildly entertaining, clever, surprising, funny, sexy, historical romance with a strong sense of time and place.

* = Starred Reviews

Will the real Anne Boleyn please stand up?

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I recently watched the movie The Other Boleyn Girl, based on the novel about the ill-fated relationship of King Henry VIII and his second wife Anne Boleyn, and was disappointed in the lack of historical accuracy. Seeking the truth behind the Hollywood version, I started looking for the story of the "real" Anne Boleyn and was quickly overwhelmed by the numerous conflicting accounts of this infamous woman. After some sleuthing, I've discovered two authors/Tudors scholars with reputable accounts of her life. Alison Weir is a fantastic author to start with if you seek information about Tudor history. Check out her book The six wives of Henry VIII for information on all of of the monarch's wives, including Anne Boleyn. Another well-respected British historian to check out is Eric William Ives. Try his book The Life and Death of Anne Boleyn for a well-researched, well-written account of this controversial figure. For those of you who prefer the steamier Hollywood adult version of Tudor history, the AADL has Season One of the Showtime series The Tudors on dvd.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #131

If you liked Company of Liars (see FFF #130 blog), then you would like Jeri Westerson's FFF Veil of Lies : A Medieval Noir*.

Stripped of his rank and honor for plotting against Richard II, disgraced knight Crispin Guest uses his wits to eke out a living in fourteenth-century London, taking on an investigation on behalf of a reclusive merchant that draws him into the middle of a complex conspiracy involving dark secrets, international plots, a missing religious relic, and murder.

Looking for similar reads? Check out the Matthew Shardlake historical mystery series by C. J. Sansom; the Dame Frevisse series by Margaret Frazer; and the Matthew Bartholomew series by Susanna Gregory.

* = Starred Review

What is truth?

Author Ken MacLeod explores truth, deception, and blogs in his novel The Execution Channel. After the 9/11 attacks on Boston and Philadelphia, the war on terror has continued. Terrorist attacks are still taking place. Conspiracy theories are everywhere as the world slides towards further division. Government-backed bloggers post disinformation to help spread the chaos. And in the background, the Execution Channel, a pirate TV station, shows state-sponsored executions 24x7.

What is truth? Is history (truth) written by the victor?

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #130

In 1348 England, as the plague ravages England, nine desperate strangers attempt to outrun the Black Death, revealing their individual stories as they travel away from the devastation, but one among them is hiding a far more sinister secret.

"British author Karen Maitland makes her U.S. debut with Company of Liars that tips its hat deeply to Geoffrey Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales. "Executed with stunning skill and precision, her medieval world is full of the fantasy and mystery you'd expect from the genre — but it also parallels our own culture more than we might expect."

"Decidedly not your English teacher's Chaucer, but creepy, suspenseful, fun", with a "gasp-out-loud finale". English majors and historical mystery fans are not going to want to miss this one! And you would want to watch for FFF #131 !

Mudbound

Every two years, Barbara Kingsolver funds a prize for the best work of fiction by a new author writing about social change. Called the Bellwether Prize, the 2006 recipient was Mudbound by Hillary Jordan. A darkly brooding story, told in alternating, first-person narrative by each character, the events reveal the scarring and devastating effects of both racism and war on two families in rural Mississippi. The long-standing hatreds of the community, combined with two returning soldiers' crippling experience of violence in World War II, beget the final betrayal for each character.

Why would one want to read such a stark-sounding, downer of a book, you may wonder? Because, frankly, it is a stunning story, told in a strong, clear voice, with characters you may never forget, and, though it unveils the dark, frightening forces at work in the human soul, it also celebrates the fierce allegiances to family, land and love. Jordan’s first book is a compelling journey with the characters to a chilling and inevitable conclusion. What surprises and satisfies is how she shines a light of hope at the end.

Fiction Firsts #129

The Jewel of Medina (copies on order) will be released in early October in the United States ahead of schedule by Beaufort Books. This fictional account of the life of Aisha, a wife of the Prophet Muhammad was originally to be published in August by Random House but was dropped after University of Texas Professor of History and Middle Eastern Studies Denise Spellberg warned the publisher the book would incite violence by Muslim extremists.

Born Aisha bint Abi Bakr in 7th century Saudi Arabia, Aisha would become one of the most revered women in the Muslim faith. "Extensively researched and elegantly crafted, The Jewel presents the beauty and harsh realities of life in an age long past, during a time of war, enlightenment, and upheaval".

Late last week, the north London home of the UK publisher of The Jewel - Gibson Square was firebombed in what is being treated as a terrorist attack. Read more about the Medina controversy.

Award-winning journalist Sherry Jones is currently the Montana and Idaho correspondent for the Bureau of National Affairs and correspondent for Women's e-News. This is her first novel.

Remember Viking Raids?

Do you remember a time when the sight of ships offshore struck fear into your heart? When vikings invaded England and set about conquering her people? Of course you do not, unless you are many centuries old! But you will feel like you are right in the action when you read the Last Kingdom, the first book in Bernard Cornwell's series about deadly war in England in the 9th century.

Follow Uhtred, a man torn between his loyalties to a Saxon king he despises and the Danes that he respects, in a land torn apart by war and divided between the worship of the old gods and the new Christianity. There is enough blood and swordfighting to satisfy even a viking warlord!

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