Fabulous Fiction Firsts #160

Etta, by first-time novelist and Emmy award-winning television reporter Gerald Kolpan is a richly imagined fictional account of the life and loves of Etta Place, the beautiful, adventurous and elusive companion to Harry Alonzo Longabaugh (a.k.a the The Sundance Kid).

Born Lorinda Jameson, the story traces her privileged upbringing as a Philadelphia debutante, the tragedy that rendered her destitute, a new identity as Etta Place, to working as a "Harvey girl" in the Wild West where she met up with Robert LeRoy Parker (a.k.a Butch Cassidy) and the Hole in the Wall Gang.

Incorporating diary entries, telegraph messages, and news clippings into the narrative, Etta is "a compelling love story, high adventure, and thrilling historical drama". The vivid setting and skilled storytelling make this tale both captiviting and entertaining.

Anyone who enjoyed Robert Redford/Paul Newman/Katharine Ross's memorable classic Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) wouldn't want to miss this.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #158

Can't believe I'm #112 on the request list for Robert Goolrick's A Reliable Wife*! The waiting is going to be unbearable.

Praised by critics as "fierce and sophisticated", this fiction debut (after a memoir) is set in 1907 Wisconsin. Catherine Land answered well-to-do businessman Ralph Truitt's newspaper ad for "a reliable wife". As she stepped off the train, it was obvious that Truitt has been deceived. Both these complex characters have plenty of traumatic baggage that is peeled away layer by layer as the two engage in a darkly dangerous game of check and checkmate.

Reliable "calls to mind the chilling tales of Poe and Stephen King, and at its core this is a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions. It melds a plot drenched in suspense with expertly realized characters and psychological realism." ~Bookpage

* = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #154

A Beautiful Place to Die* is an accomplished debut in a projected mystery series by Malla Nunn.

Award-winning filmmaker Nunn sets this atmospheric police procedural in her native South Africa. Det. Sgt. Emmanuel Cooper is called to investigate the murder of an Afrikaner police captain in Jacob's Rest, a small border town with Mozambique.

1952 saw the gathering force of apartheid. New government decrees further etched the color divide. Racial tension, already ingrained, festered with secrets and lies both sordid and honorable. Cooper, being an outsider and under the oppressive supervision of the farcical government agents, must tread lightly to get at the truth.

Mystery readers might remember fondly James McClure's early apartheid procedurals, mostly out-of-print. For another current series set in South Africa, try Salamander Cotton by Richard Kunzmann.

Fans of the PBS MYSTERY! program should also check out the cinematic 1999 miniseries Heat of the Sun, about a former Scotland Yarder transplanted to 1930s Nairobi, filmed entirely on location.

* = Starred Review

Fireflies in December

Fireflies in December is the debut novel of Jennifer Erin Valent about a 13 year old girl, Jessilyn, and her parents taking in her best friend Gemma, after Gemma's parent were tragically killed in a house fire. The problem is, the year is 1932, Gemma is black, the Lassiters are white, and they live in a small Virginia town. Jessilyn is the character of dreams, taking cues from her father and speaking out against the threats coming from her small prejudiced community. The tone and speech in the novel take you to the south to a time where the people faced struggles not only from the Depression but from intolerance as well. The plot of this novel reminds readers of the evil that ordinary human beings are capable of doing, even in the name of righteousness. If you don't mind some moderate religious undertones, this book is heart-warming yet bittersweet and reminds us that even in the face of violence and terror, goodness can still surround us.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #152

Eve: a novel of the first woman is a luminous and unique retelling of the oldest story in the world - that of Adam and Eve.

First-time novelist Elissa Elliott puts a powerful twist on the biblical narrative, boldly reimagining Eve’s journey, from the woman who once tasted the forbidden fruit of paradise to one watching her family unravel right before her eyes. "At once intimate and universal, timely and timeless, it explores the very essence of love, motherhood, faith, and humanity".

For readers of historical fiction depicting women in the Bible, and The Red Tent by Anita Diamant immediately comes to mind.

The Sir John Fielding Mysteries

If you are a reader of historical mysteries, especially if there is a nice long series of them, the eleven Sir John Fielding Mysteries, by Bruce Alexander, could be for you. In Georgian London (that is, when mad King George was sending redcoats to North America to discipline those headstrong colonialists), Sir John Fielding is the magistrate in Covent Garden. Based on a true character, Sir John was known as the “Beak of Bow Street” and was responsible for organizing the first-ever police force, known as the Bow Street Runners. With a reputation as an uncompromising, exacting man of the law, he was also one of the first to be considered fair and impartial when hearing cases involving the local riff-raff from the streets of London.

I have only read the first two, and so can’t vouch for them all, but these were perfect. Told by Sir John’s young ward, Jeremy Proctor, a foundling with a sharper-than-average mind and keen powers of observation, who becomes Sir John’s helper and co-conspirator in unraveling the dastardly crimes of Covent Garden. Oh, did I mention that Sir John was blind? Stories are told about how he could recognize 2000 local criminals by their voices alone. His astute and probing mind, his unfailing memory and keen senses, prove the undoing of the criminal element in old-town London.

Alexander sets just the right mood in foggy London with visits to the infamous Newgate Prison, "Bedlam" Hospital and Drury Lane Theatre; colorful and memorable Dickensian-style characters, including a few real ones like Samuel Johnson and Ben Franklin; really twisty plots which are hard to second guess; and a very well-crafted, lilting narrative which mimics eighteenth-century speech, but is utterly readable.

Be sure to begin with the first, Blind Justice. For a list of all the titles in the series, in order, look here.

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?

anne boleynanne boleyn

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.

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