Fabulous Fiction Firsts #335

STOP!!! If you are an adrenaline junkie, go no further. This WWII espionage by Laurent Binet will leave you wanting. But if you are a patient reader of literary fiction and a student of history, then you would find HHhH * * * quite a little gem. (Also available in the original French in our World Language Collection).

HHhH = Himmlers Hirn heisst Heydrich ("Himmler's brain is called Heydrich" ) - the most dangerous man in Hitler's cabinet, Reinhard Heydrich : "The Blonde Beast", "The Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia", "The Butcher of Prague", "The Man with the Iron Heart" - implacable cruel and seemingly indestructible, until two men, a Slovak and a Czech recruited by the British secret service, tried to kill him in broad daylight on a bustling street in Prague, in a most daring assassination plot, codenamed Operation Anthropoid.

In this debut novel, winner of the 2010 Prix Goncourt du Premier Roman, though we know the outcome of this historic event, we willingly agreed to be led, by the seasoned hand of a master storyteller to follow Jozef Gabcik and Jan Kubis from their dramatic escape of Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia to England; from their recruitment to their harrowing parachute drop into a war zone, from their stealth attack on Heydrich's car to their own brutal death in the basement of a Prague church. A parallel storyline is the narrator/author's effort to capture this heroic act on paper. A "zealous amateur historian", disarmingly honest with his mistakes, but relentless and dogged with his subject and materials, attempts to lay the whole affair in geopolitical context.

"A seemingly effortlessly blend of historical truth, personal memory, and remarkable imagination... a work at once thrilling and intellectually engrossing", Paris born Laurent Binet, is the author of La Vie professionnelle de Laurent B., a memoir of his experience teaching in secondary schools in Paris. He is a professor of French Literature at the University of Paris III. The fluid translation by Sam Taylor is a superb choice for lovers of historical literary works and WWII fiction, especially The Girl in the Blue Beret.

Watch-alike: Valkyrie, and Army of Crime.

* * * = starred reviews

Youth Historical Novel: "The Lions of Little Rock"

While researching The Lions of Little Rock, author Kristin Levine zeroed in on 1958 when Little Rock, Arkansas, was starting to react to forced integration of the public schools. By setting her novel at that time, she gives it a compelling undertone, as readers witness the governor closing the high schools and citizens forming groups such as the Women's Emergency Committee to Open Our Schools (WEC).

This historical novel for youth offers dynamic characters and plot, starring painfully shy twelve-year-old Marlee. Readers will be moved when Marlee bids good-bye to her beloved older sister who is sent away for high school. Left at home, Marlee struggles to make friends, when suddenly an unexpected friendship with a new girl, Liz, boosts her confidence and helps her to understand where she stands in the fight against racism. I found Levine's book informative, warm, and highly entertaining. Reviews have been strongly positive, including this from the New York Times Book Review: ". . . Satisfying, gratifying, touching, weighty — this authentic piece of work has got soul." Levine also wrote The Best Bad Luck I Ever Had, an American Library Association Best Book for Young Adults.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #332

The colorful notes taken by Evangeline (Eva) English for A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar *, the working title of a travel guide, make up one of two story lines in this debut novel by Suzanne Joinson.

In 1923, sisters Eva and Lizzie, missionaries in the ancient Silk Road city of Kashgar are met with suspicion and hostility (no surprise there), but when a humanistic endeavor gone wrong places them under house arrest, their safety is seriously compromised. Eva, however, continues to capture her adventures in this insular and exotic locale at the brink of war on her glorious, green BSA Lady's Roadster.

In present day London, solitary Frieda befriends Tayeb, a displaced Yemeni sleeping outside her door, and discovers an artist with an exquisite talent with birds. When Frieda learns she has inherited the contents of an apartment belonging to a dead woman she has never heard of, they embark on an unexpected journey together.

"Beautifully written, and peopled by a cast of unforgettable characters, the novel interweaves the stories of Frieda and Eva, gradually revealing the links between them and the ways in which they each challenge and negotiate the restrictions of their societies as they make their hard-won way toward home".

For more tales of intrepid women adventurers, try Lulu in Marrakech by Diane Johnson; The Tattoo Artist by Jill Ciment; and The Lost Girls : three friends, four continents, one unconventional detour around the world by Jennifer Baggett.

Suzanne Joinson works in the literature department of the British Council, specializing in the Middle East, North Africa, and China.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #330

Joining a recent crop of fictional biographies of famous women and their little-known love affairs such as The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott and Romancing Miss Brontë is Rosie Sultan's Helen Keller in Love.

No doubt we are all familiar with Helen Keller's early education as depicted in The Miracle Worker, a play by William Gibson (which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1960, and adapted into an Oscar-winning feature film in 1962), but we are less likely to remember her for her strong interest in women's rights, universal suffrage, and social activism. Very little is written about her private and emotional life.

This debut novel imagines a 30-something Helen's love affair with Peter Fagan, a brass young journalist hired to step in as her secretary when Annie Sullivan was diagnosed with tuberculosis. Their daily sensual interactions of signing and lip-reading with hands and fingers quickly set in motion a liberating, passionate, and clandestine affair, which was met with stern disapproval from her family and Annie. Helen is caught between the expectations of the people who love her and her most intimate desires.

"Richly textured and deeply sympathetic", it vividly depicts Helen's inner life and her feelings of utter dependence and loneliness and her desperate desire to be treated as a woman.

Rosie Sultan (website), winner of a PEN Discovery Award for fiction, has taught writing at Boston University, the University of Massachusetts, and Suffolk University. She lives in Brookline, Massachusetts.

"Crossing the Tracks," Tenderhearted Historical Novel for Teens

Poor Iris Baldwin lost her mom as a young child, and now that she is a teen, her overbearing, insensitive dad is sending her away for the summer. Iris feels awkward, alienated, and angry about his latest girlfriend as she spends the summer with kindly Doctor Nesbitt and his elderly mother. Gradually Iris finds friendship, compassion, and a mindset that feels like home. Set in Kansas and Missouri in the 1920s, this coming-of-age novel -- the first by talented author Barbara Stuber -- offers romantic and tragic subplots, including a young neighbor's pregnancy and a violent death in Iris' family.

Once I picked this novel up, I couldn't put it down. After I finished reading it, I was delighted to see that this historical novel was picked in 2011 for Best Fiction for Young Adults by the Young Adult Library Services Association (YALSA), a division of the American Library Association. Written for kids in about sixth through eighth grades, the story "offers strong character development and an engaging protagonist," according to School Library Journal. It's a natural for readers drawn to the Great Plains. Check out the author's website here.

Fabulous Fiction "Firsts" #328

Gillespie and I is British author Jane Harris' second novel (first in our collection), and a follow-up to her award-winning The Observations (2006).

Writing her memoirs in her Bloomsbury flat in 1933, Ms. Harriet Baxter recounts the summer of 1888 when she traveled to Glasgow as a well-heeled, youngish spinster, eager to embrace the excitement of the International Exhibition.

Untethered, self-assured but nevertheless adrift and grieving from the recent death of her kindly aunt, Harriet was immediately drawn to Ned Gillespie, a young, immensely talented painter and his large, eccentric family. "The initially playful narrative tone darkens decidedly as the double mystery of Ned's eventual suicide and Harriet's reliability as a memoirist steadily unpeels."

This "elegant novel of love, loss and redemption among the Victorians and Caledonians", is "irresistible and unforgettable". Already long listed for the Orange Prize, and shortlisted for the Galaxy National Book Awards, it "places (Harris) alongside Michel Faber, D.J. Taylor, and Sarah Waters as a gifted 21st-century conjuror of new 19th-century novels incorporating our own era's sensibilities while deeply honoring the milieu of the characters she creates."

"A rewarding, gripping, and disconcerting novel".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #326

Absolutely, you won't get an argument from me that Unholy Night is not the first novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, but it is his first departure from zombies and vampires. Good enough reason for me.

Alright, it is another one of his "evolution in dark historical revisionism" but what fun. And thanks to that "brilliant and twisted mind", you will never look at The Nativity the same way again.

Did you ever wonder about the "Three Wise Men"? Who were they? Why the strange gifts? What happened to them? In Grahame-Smith's telling, they were infamous thieves dressed in borrowed finery, led by the charming, elusive and murderous Balthazar as they stumbled upon the Holy family in the famous manger after a daring escape from Herod's prison. Before they could make off with the gifts, Herod's men began to slaughter the first born in Judea, and they cast themselves, reluctantly at best, as the Holy Family's escort in their flight into Egypt. Thus began a heart-stopping, swashbuckling adventure.

The action, danger, intrigue, and humor is palpable but what impressed me most are the ingenious, unexpectedly poignant back stories he has created for the biblical figures - from the young, ambitious and secretly decent Pontius Pilate; Mary, the mouthy, sassy 15 year-old who is tough and surprisingly maternal; to the cruel, mad and diseased King Herod.

Film rights for Unholy sold ($2 million) to Warner Bros. before its publication. Seth Grahame-Smith wrote Tim Burton's film Dark Shadows (being released May 2012) and the screenplay for Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, a previous novel, in theaters June 2012.

Readalike: Gentlemen of the Road by Michael Chabon ; illustrated by Gary Gianni.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #323 (Revised)

NEWS!!!! (April 17, 2012) This title has just been shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction and the only first novel on the list.

Debut novelist Madeline Miller's The Song of Achilles * "combines the poetic drama of (Homer's) The Iliad with a 21st-century understanding of war, sex, sexual politics, and the Trojan War."

This epic retelling of the legend of Achilles from the view point of Patroclus centers on the relationship between Achilles and Patroclus, the exact nature of which has been a subject of dispute in both the classical period and modern times. An exiled Greek prince, Patroclus is taken in by King Peleus, and along with the king's golden son Achilles, is trained in the arts of war and medicine. Their tentative friendship, and later a deep and passionate love that "stands firm in the face of the disapproval of their elders, dire prophecies, and the wrath of the gods" unfortunately forces them to make the ultimate sacrifice.

"Miller's degrees in Latin and Greek as well as her passion for the theater and the history of the ancient world have given her the tools to create a masterly vision of the drama, valor, and tragedy of the Trojan War" .

Comparison to historical fiction by Mary Renault is obvious, but check out an in-depth exploration in Neal Wyatt's RA Crossroad where you will find thoughtful lists of Read-Alikes, as well as audios and videos on the subject and historical period.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #325

Called "darkly whimsical", poet Regina O'Melveny's debut novel The Book of Madness and Cures * joins the likes of Galileo's Daughter; Ariana Franklin's Vesuvia Adelia Rachel Ortese Aguilar in The Mistress of the Art of Death; and fictional biographies of 16th Century artist Artemisia Gentileschi - intimate looks at strong women greatly influenced by their renowned fathers and inhibited lives ahead of their time.

Dr. Gabriella Mondini - competent, strong-willed, and a dedicated physician is about to lose the Venetian guild endorsement to practice medicine now that her father has disappeared for a decade. Almost overnight, Gabriella decides to set off on a quest to find him - a daunting journey that will take her through great university cities and remote villages across Europe. Despite setbacks, wary strangers, and the menaces of the road, the young doctor bravely follows the clues to her lost father, all the while continuing with her father's ambitious research for The Book of Diseases.

"Gorgeous and brilliantly written, and filled with details about science, medicine, food, and madness", O'Melveny draws on her Italian artist mother's memories of Venice and her own father's disappearance when she was young to create a story of real longing.

* = Starred review

Titanic Inspired Fabulous Fiction Firsts #324

April 15, 2012 marks the centennial anniversary of the sinking of the RMS TITANIC on her maiden voyage. Locally, check out Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition at the Henry Ford Museum, running through September 30, 2012, as well as other related programs.

The media is feeding the renewed interest with high-profiled and pricy (£10 million) projects like Julian Fellowes' (creator of Downton Abbey) four-part miniseries called simply - Titanic that will premiere Saturday, April 14 (8:00-11:00 p.m., ET) on ABC. Like Downton, the focus is on the divide between the classes.

Not to be outdone, publishers have timed their release of 3 first novels inspired by this historic event.

The Dressmaker by DC political reporter Kate Alcott is a "vivid, romantic, and relentlessly compelling historical novel about a spirited young seamstress who survived the disaster only to find herself embroiled in the media frenzy left in the wake of the tragedy."

A highly-anticipated debut, The Lifeboat * by Princeton grad. (Architecture) Charlotte Rogan, (with glowing endorsement by Emma Donoghue, J.M. Coetzee, Hilary Mantel, Tim O'Brien and Valerie Martin) sets the scene in 1914 when a young and newly-minted heiress is on trial for her actions during the three weeks she spent on an overcrowded and under-provisioned lifeboat after an explosion at sea. A provocative, complex psychological drama that examines instinct and morality. Read the New York Times review and author interview.

"Time travel, airships, the Titanic, Roswell ...David Kowalski builds a decidedly original creature that blends military science fiction, conspiracy theory, alternate history, and even a dash of romance..." in his debut The Company of the Dead *, which promptly won 2 SciFi Awards when it was published in Australia in 2004.

In April 2012, Joseph Kennedy--nephew of John F. Kennedy, and a major in the Confederate army, is one of six people who can restore history to its rightful order -- even though it would mean his death, and the deaths of everyone he loves.

"Imaginative, monolithic, action-packed", "(a) magnificent alternate history, set against the backdrop of one of the greatest maritime disasters."

David Kowalski is an obstetrician and gynecologist living in Sydney, Australia.

* = Starred review

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