Fabulous Fiction Firsts #311

When it comes to thrillers, I am a hard one to please. But Chris Morgan Jones's debut The Silent Oligarch * * * really hits the mark.

First published in Britain as An Agent of Deceit, this financial puzzler zigzags across datelines, geography and glittery lifestyles, global politics and ruthless business schemes, base instincts and noble courage as an intelligence agent pursues a money launderer to expose the dealings of a shadowy Russian oligarch.

It is not clear how a minor government bureaucrat like Konstantin Malin could control half of Russia's oil industry, command a vast fortune and absolute fear from those he deals with, including Richard Lock, a hapless money launderer bound to Malin by marriage, complacency, and greed. Benjamin Webster intends to find out.

A journalist turned corporate espionage investigator, Webster is hired by a swindled financier to ruin Malin. A more personal motivation might be to settle the score for the gruesome death of a colleague years ago in a remote Kazakh jail.

As Webster's investigation closes in on Malin's game and Lock's colleagues begin dying mysteriously, he goes on the run.

"With a mysterious, complex plot and terrific local color, this novel resonates to the pounding heartbeats of the boldly drawn main characters. John Le Carre, Martin Cruz Smith, and Brent Ghelfi will be inching over in the book display so readers in search of erudite, elegant international intrigue can spot the newcomer."

~ "smart first novel, a taut thriller"

* * * = Starred reviews

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 #307: Spotlight on Korea

Please Look After Mom a novel by Kyung-sook S(h)in (translated from the Korean by Chi-Young Kim) is the stunning, deeply moving story of a family’s search for their mother, who goes missing one afternoon amid the crowds of the Seoul Station subway.
Currently a visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York City and one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists, Sin has been honored with many literary prizes including France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu. Please Look After Mom is her first book to appear in English.

Chosen as one of the 9 Kirkus Reviews' New and Notable Fiction Debuts for 2011, Chicago author Samuel Park's This Burns My Heart is narrated by Soo-Ja, a woman struggling to provide a good life for her daughter in spite of her own unhappy marriage and a culture that grants no rights to women, the situation made even more difficult when her long-lost true love Dr. Yul returns.

Considered by critics and reviewers to be his break-out work, The Orphan Master's Son * * * by Adam Johnson (Stanford, Creative Writing) is not to be missed. I am sure some of you would not hesitate to point out that this is NOT his first novel. But how many of you had read Parasites Like Us (2003)? I thought so.

Pak Jun Do's father runs Long Tomorrows, a North Korean work camp for orphans where he is given his first taste of power. Recognized for his loyalty and keen instincts, he rises through the ranks to become a valuable instrument of the state as a professional kidnapper. To stay alive, he must navigate and endure the shifting rules, arbitrary violence, and baffling demands from those in command, until he boldly takes on a treacherous role in order to save the woman he loves.

"Part breathless thriller, part story of innocence lost, part story of romantic love, The Orphan Master's Son is also a riveting portrait of a world heretofore hidden from view: a North Korea rife with hunger, corruption, and casual cruelty but also camaraderie, stolen moments of beauty, and love."

Adam Johnson will be in Ann Arbor Tuesday, January 24th, 7pm at Nicola's Books. Get there early.

* * * = Starred Reviews

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.

December's Books to Film

Steven Spielberg directs the animated film adaptation of The Adventures of TINTIN. This first of a planned triogy is base on a very popular comic book series created in 1929 by a Belgian artist who called himself Hergé. Clever and ever-curious, TINTIN is a reporter-turned-detective whose pursuit of villains, criminals, treasure and the occasional artifact takes him all over the world, along with a colorful cast of friends. Hergé based his stories on real-world events and cultures - from space exploration to Arab oil wars.

Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close is adapted from Jonathan Safran Foer's critically acclaimed novel in which 9 year-old Oskar Schell embarks on an urgent, secret mission that will take him through the five boroughs of New York in order to find the lock that matches a mysterious key that belonged to his father, who died in the World Trade Center on the morning of September 11. This seemingly impossible task will bring Oskar into contact with survivors of all sorts on an exhilarating, affecting, often hilarious, and ultimately healing journey.

I was perfectly happy with the original film adaptation of Stieg Larsson's The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the first in his Millennium Trilogy. But I could be persuaded to take in the American remake coming this month with some irresistible big names (Daniel Craig, Christopher Plummer) and a sizzling newcomer (Rooney Mara).

Benjamin Mee's memoir is adapted in the feature film We Bought a Zoo. Benjamin Mee, a former newspaper columnist, known for his humorous "Do It Yourself" column in the UK’s Guardian Weekend moved his family to an unlikely new home: a dilapidated zoo in the English countryside. Mee had a dream to refurbish the zoo and run it as a family business. Nothing was easy, given the family’s lack of experience as zookeepers, and what follows is a magical exploration of the mysteries of the animal kingdom, the power of family, and the triumph of hope over tragedy.

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.

November's Books to Film (You KNOW! the season is upon us)

Brian Selznick's charming Caldecott Medal winner The Invention of Hugo Cabret : a novel in words and pictures (2007) is one for the whole family to hit the big screen on November 23rd. In this moving and entertaining film adaptation, an orphaned boy secretly lives in the walls of a busy Paris train station and looks after the clocks. He gets caught up in a mystery adventure when he attempts to repair a mechanical man. Martin Scorsese directs a star-studded cast of Asa Butterfield, Chloë Grace Moretz, Johnny Depp, and Jude Law.

Based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, Breaking Dawn – Part 1 is the highly anticipated next chapter of the blockbuster The Twilight Saga. The new-found married bliss of Bella Swan and vampire Edward Cullen is cut short when a series of betrayals and misfortunes threatens to destroy their world. Wide release on the 18th, savvy fans know the drill.

The gritty noir novel London Boulevard (2001) by Ken Bruen has been adapted into a feature film starring Colin Farrell, Keira Knightley, Ray Winstone. An ex-con hired to look after a reclusive young actress finds himself falling in love, which puts him in direct confrontation with one of London's most vicious gangsters.

In A Dangerous Method, adapted from the book by John Kerr, on the eve of World War I, Zurich and Vienna are the setting for a dark tale of sexual and intellectual discovery. Drawn from true-life events, it explores the turbulent relationships between fledgling psychiatrist Carl Jung, his mentor Sigmund Freud and Sabina Spielrein, the beautiful but disturbed young woman who comes between them. Starring Michael Fassbender, Keira Knightley, and Viggo Mortensen.

George Clooney, Judy Greer, and Matthew Lillard star in The Descendants, adapted from the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings. Wealthy Hawaiian landowner Matt King has his life upended when his wife, Joanie, is involved in a boating accident. King struggles to reconnect with his two daughters as the three of them take a journey to deliver the news of Joanie's imminent death to the man with whom she was having an affair.

My Week With Marilyn, is based on Colin Clark’s (played by Eddie Redmayne) controversial memoir. The film centers on the tense relationship between Sir Laurence Olivier (Kenneth Branagh) and Marilyn Monroe (Michelle Williams) during production of The Prince and the Showgirl. In the early summer of 1956, 23-year-old Colin Clark, just down from Oxford and determined to make his way in the film business, worked as a lowly assistant on the set of The Prince and the Showgirl. In his diary, one week was missing, and this is the story of that week when Colin introduced Marilyn to some of the pleasures of British life.

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