Claudius, the Underdog

The Roman Emperor Claudius came to power in a highly undignified manner, pulled whimpering from his hiding place behind a curtain. Considering the schemes, machinations, tortures and death inherent in his family's murderous dynasty, you can't really blame him. I, Claudius tells a fictionalized account of the reluctant emperor's life in his own words. The award-winning miniseries is adapted from the novel I, Claudius by Robert Graves. The novel is a classic of historical fiction and is every bit as intoxicating as the TV series it inspired. Fans of bloody historical romps such as The Tudors and Rome should definitely check out I, Claudius.

Winners in Genre Fiction - RUSA’s 2012 Reading List

The American Library Association's Reading List Council have selected their top picks for 2012 in eight popular genres. Among the winners (and the shortlists) are some of the best by first-time novelists.

ADRENALINE
Before I Go To Sleep by S. J. Watson. (See FFF blog)
Each morning, Christine wakes with no memory. From the clues she left herself, she tries to piece together her identity and sort lies from the truth. The unrelenting pace thrusts the reader into the confusion of a waking nightmare in which revelations of her past lead to a frantic crescendo.

FANTASY
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (See FFF blog)
Le Cirque des Rêves is utterly unique, disappearing at dawn in one town only to mysteriously reappear in another. At the heart of the circus are two young magicians, involved in a competition neither completely understands. The dreamlike atmosphere and vivid imagery make this fantasy unforgettable.

HISTORICAL FICTION
Doc by Mary Doria Russell
In the early days of Dodge City, a genteel, tubercular Southern dentist forges a friendship with the infamous Earp brothers. Combining historical details and lyrical language, this gritty psychological portrait of gunslinger Doc Holliday reveals how the man became the legend.

HORROR
The Ridge by Michael Koryta
The unexplained death of an eccentric lighthouse keeper in the isolated Kentucky woods, followed by a mysterious threat to a nearby large cat sanctuary prompt an investigation by a journalist and the local sheriff. Palpable evil and a sense of dread drive this chilling tale.

MYSTERY
The Devotion of Suspect X by Keigo Higashino (See FFF blog)
An introverted mathematician matches wits with a brilliant former colleague to protect the neighbor he secretly adores from a murder charge. Although the reader knows the murderer’s identity from the beginning, this unconventional Japanese mystery remains a taut psychological puzzle.

ROMANCE
Silk is for Seduction by Loretta Chase
Ambitious dressmaker Marcelline Noirot will do almost anything to secure the patronage of the Duke of Clevendon’s intended bride. Neither her calculated business plan nor his campaign of seduction can withstand the force of their mutual attraction. Witty banter and strong-willed characters make this a memorable tale.

SCIENCE FICTION
Leviathan Wakes by James S.A. Corey
The missions of a jaded cop and a dedicated ice hauler officer collide as the fate of humanity hangs in the balance. A mystery adds a noir touch to this space opera featuring deeply flawed yet heroic characters, non-stop action and Earth versus Mars politics.

WOMEN'S FICTION
The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh (See FFF blog)
A former foster child struggles to overcome a past filled with abuse, neglect and anger. Communication through the Victorian language of fflowers allows her to discover hope, redemption and a capacity for love. Damaged, authentic characters create an emotional tension in this profoundly moving story.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #306

Already an international bestseller Maria Duenas' The Time in Between * * (translated from the Spanish by Daniel Hahn) is the inspiring, richly textured story of a seemingly ordinary woman who uses her talent and courage to transform herself first into a prestigious couturier and then into an undercover agent for the Allies during World War II. (This title is also available in the original Spanish language).

At age twelve, Sira Quiroga sweeps the atelier floors where her single mother works as a seamstress. At fourteen, she quietly begins her own apprenticeship. By her early twenties she has learned the ropes of the business and is engaged to a modest government clerk. With the Spanish Civil War brewing in Madrid, Sira impetuously following her handsome lover to Morocco, only to be abandoned and penniless. Sira reinvents herself by turning to the one skill that can save her: her gift for creating beautiful clothes.

As WWII looms, Sira is persuaded by the British Government to return to Madrid, where she takes on a new identity, and embarks on the most dangerous undertaking of her career - as a spy. Being the preeminent couturier for an eager clientele of Nazi officers' wives, Sira is able to navigate within the world of espionage and political conspiracy rife with love, intrigue, and betrayal.

"(F)lawlessly researched, and breathlessly paced... this debut novel captures the beauty and decadence of pre-WWII Europe".

"A wonderful novel, in the good old tradition, with intrigue, love, mystery and tender, audacious and well-drawn characters." ~ Mario Vargas Llosa, Nobel Prize Laureate.

Anyone with an interest in the world of fashion and the life of Coco Chanel will find this fascinating.

If you like the smooth blend of romantic fiction, spy thriller, and sassy heroines, then I would like to suggest Susan Isaacs' Shining Through (1988), Signed, Mata Hari (2007) by Yannick Murphy, and A Game of Lies by Rebecca Cantrell (2011).

* * = starred reviews

New Book Clubs to Go (January 2012)

The following new Book Clubs to Go kits have been added to our collection:

A Reliable Wife by Robert Goolrick
Ralph Truitt, a wealthy businessman with a troubled past has advertised for a reliable wife; and his ad is answered by Catherine Land, a woman who makes every effort to hide her own dark secrets.

City of Thieves by David Benioff
A captivating novel about war, courage, survival-and a remarkable friendship that ripples across a lifetime.

Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford
When artifacts from Japanese families sent to internment camps during World War II are uncovered in Seattle, Henry Lee embarks on a quest that leads to memories of growing up Chinese in a city rife with anti-Japanese sentiment.

Room by Emma Donoghue
A 5-year-old narrates a riveting story about his life growing up in a single room where his mother aims to protect him from the man who has held her prisoner for seven years since she was a teenager.

Still Alice by Lisa Genova
Dagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's Disease, Harvard psychologist Alice Howland struggles to find meaning and purpose in her everyday life as her concept of self gradually slips away.

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton
Abandoned on a 1913 voyage to Australia, Nell is raised by a dock master and his wife who do not tell her until she is an adult that she is not their child, leading Nell to return to England and eventually hand down her quest for answers to her granddaughter.

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Henrietta Lacks, a poor Southern tobacco farmer, was buried in an unmarked grave sixty years ago. Yet her cells -- taken without her knowledge, grown in culture and bought and sold by the billions -- became one of the most important tools in medical research.

The Postmistress by Sarah Blake
The stories of a small Cape Cod postmistress and an American radio reporter stationed in London collide on the eve of the United States's entrance into World War II, a meeting that is shaped by a broken promise to deliver a letter.

The Weight of Silence by Heather Gudenkauf
When their seven-year-old daughter goes missing, Antonia evaluates her decision to stay in a loveless marriage that caused her child to withdraw into silence, while Martin confronts an uncomfortable aspect of his own personality.

The Weird Sisters by Eleanor Brown
Unwillingly brought together to care for their ailing mother, three sisters who were named after famous Shakespearean characters discover that everything they have been avoiding may prove more worthwhile than expected.

The Yiddish Policemen's Union by Michael Chabon
An alternate historical work based on a premise that Alaska became the Jewish homeland after World War II finds detective Meyer Landsman investigating a heroin-addicted chess prodigy's murder, a case with ties to an extremist Orthodox sect.

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

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