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

New Book Clubs to Go - April 2012

Over the next few weeks, we will be rolling out a large number of new Book Clubs to Go. It is a mix of classics (you asked for them), literary and popular fiction, among them a couple of award winners. We did not forget our nonfiction readers either.

Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner
Traces the fortunes of four generations of one family as they attempt to build a life for themselves in the American West. Winner of the Pulitzer Prize when it was first published in 1971, Angle of Repose has also been selected by the editorial board of the Modern Library as one of the hundred best novels of the twentieth century.

Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks
Forging a deep friendship with a Wampanoag chieftain's son on the Great Harbor settlement where her minister father is working to convert the tribe, Bethia follows his subsequent ivy league education and efforts to bridge cultures among the colonial elite. New York Times bestselling tale of passion and belief, magic and adventure from the Pulitzer Prize winning author.

The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin
Chronicles the author's year spent testing the edicts of conventional wisdom to assess their potential for improving life, describing various activities ranging from getting more sleep and singing to her children to starting a blog and imitating a spiritual master.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver
Harrison William Shepherd, a highly observant writer, is caught between two worlds--in Mexico, working for communists Diego Rivera, Frida Kahlo and Leon Trotsky, and later in America, where he is caught up in the patriotism of World War II.

Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
In 1974 Manhattan, a radical young Irish monk struggles with personal demons while making his home among Bronx prostitutes, a group of mothers shares grief over their lost Vietnam soldier sons, and a young grandmother attempts to prove her worth. The 2009 National Book Award for Fiction, and the 2011 International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan
Descending on a family beach house won in a bet years earlier, three generations of women gradually impart difficult respective secrets including a pregnancy, a terrible crush and a deeply held resentment for past misdeeds.

The Paris Wife by Paula McLain
A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal, The Paris Wife captures a remarkable period of time and a love affair between two unforgettable people: Ernest Hemingway and his wife Hadley.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Discovering in childhood a supernatural ability to taste the emotions of others in their cooking, Rose Edelstein grows up to regard food as a curse when it reveals everyone's secret realities.

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult
Ten years of infertility issues culminate in the destruction of music therapist Zoe Baxter's marriage, after which she falls in love with another woman and wants to start a family, but her ex-husband, Max, stands in the way.

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
A researcher at a pharmaceutical company, Marina Singh must step out of her comfort zone when she is sent into the heart of the Amazonian delta to check on a field team that has been silent for two years--a dangerous assignment that forces Marina to confront the ghosts of her past.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
A novel that circles the lives of Bennie Salazar, an aging former punk rocker and record executive, and Sasha, the passionate, troubled young woman he employs. It is about the interplay of time and music, about survival, about the stirrings and transformations set inexorably in motion by even the most passing conjunction of our fates. The 2011 Pulitzer Prize for fiction and The National Book Critics Circle 2010 prize for fiction.

The Devil in the White City

Do you enjoy a good suspense story? How about a suspense story in a one-of-a-kind historical setting? What about a good suspense story with amazingly well-researched historical facts about Chicago hosting the 1893 World's Fair with a serial killer preying on tourists, a delusional political hopeful stalking the city's officials, and a team of architectural geniuses thrown into the mix?

If you missed Erik Larson's 2004 bestseller The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America, here’s your chance to get all of the above, plus more. Erik Larson meticulously researched the ambitious Daniel H. Burnham, Patrick Prendergast, and Henry H. Holmes and cast the three into this single volume.

Prepare yourself to learn about the first sparks of industrial unionization, the development of America's urban landscapes, artistic feats in action, and the shocking brutality humans can inflict upon each other. A must read.

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.

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