Fabulous Fiction Firsts #374

Being released just in time to coincide with the much anticipated 3rd season of Downton Abbey, Elizabeth Wilhide's debut novel Ashenden is sure to find eager readers. It is a story about an English country house and the people who inhabit it - upstairs and downstairs, births and deaths, comings and goings, over the course of 240 years.

When siblings Charlie and Ros discover that they have inherited Ashenden Park, their aunt's much-loved house, they must decide if they should sell it. In an interwoven narrative spanning two and a half centuries, we meet the original architect who gave it shape, the families who called it home, the soldiers it billeted during the Great War, the housekeeping staff that ran it, to the young couple who lovingly restored it to shades of its former glory.

Wilhide, author (website) of more than 20 books on interior design, decoration, and architecture gives us "an evocative portrait of a house that becomes a character as compelling as the people who inhabit it."

More on the English country house and its inhabitants, try Secrets of the Manor House : inside British country homes in the early 1900's (2012), a PBS video.

For a closer look at the interiors, how about Henrietta Spencer-Churchill's gorgeously photographed Classic English Interiors? Or come along on the The English Country House : a grand tour by Gervase Jackson-Stops and James Pipkin.

For those of you who could not wait until Sunday, do you know you can watch the first 10 minutes of Season 3 right now?

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #373

A runaway bestseller in its native Germany since its publication in 2011, Alex Capus's Leon & Louise has just been longlisted for the German Book Prize. This story of enduring love that survives the tribulations of two world wars is inspired by the author's French paternal grandfather, a police chemist at the Quai des Orfèvres.

Leon Le Gall and Louise Janvier met as teenagers in the summer of 1918 in the village of Saint-Luc-sur-Marne. Their tentative romance was cut short when both were severely wounded by German artillery fire. When they met up in Paris a decade later, circumstances and their strong conviction about family and responsibility kept them apart. The Occupation of Paris during WWII sent Louise into the wilds of Africa and Leon under the watchful eye of the SS. Their love, however remain constant.

"On its surface, this is a story about enduring love. But it is also about the way that power can be abused, particularly in times of war, and the daily sacrifices people make to preserve what they hold most dear."

Capus was born to a French father and a Swiss mother. He spent his formative years in his grandfather's house in Normandy and may account for the lovely depiction of the locale (map) as the haven for Parisian holidaymakers at the turn of the 20th century. As a student of history and a former journalist, Capus was able to recreate, in great details and stoic realism the Nazi occupation of Paris and the hardships on its citizens.

A captivating read for a cold dreary day. Will appeal to fans of Tatiana de Rosnay. Readers might also like The Lost Wife by Alyson Richman, and Anita Shreve's Resistance.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #372

The New York Times review by Francine Prose called Deborah Levy's 2012 Man Booker Prize finalist Swimming Home a "spare, disturbing and frequently funny novel... that suggest an improbable hybrid of Virginia Woolf, Edward St. Aubyn, Absolutely Fabulous (a BBC sitcom), and Patricia Highsmith? ... (one that) should be read with care".

Two British couples are to share a vacation home in the South of France - idyllic, right? When Joe Jacobs arrives with his family at the villa, he sees a beautiful girl emerging from the swimming pool, naked. She is Kitty Finch and she walks right into the heart of their holiday.

"Levy winds her characters up and watches them go, and they do as most humans do, which is to mess up in the face of desire. Her novel is utterly beautiful and lyrical throughout, even at the most tragic turns"

South African–born Londoner Deborah Levy (author website) writes fiction, plays, and poetry. Her work has been staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company and broadcast on the BBC.

In the meantime, if you are way down on the waiting list, don't despair. Try Lawrence Osborne's The Forgiven * * (2012) about other not-so-innocents abroad, sets in the Moroccan desert. Here is another Fabulous Fiction Firsts that has been selected by The Economist and Library Journal as one of the 10 Best Books of 2012.

You might also like Jess Walter's Beautiful Ruins "Gloriously inventive, constantly surprising... a story of flawed yet fascinating people, navigating the rocky shores of their lives while clinging to their improbable dreams."

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #371

O.K. I will admit it. When my copy of City of Dark Magic arrived in the mail, I was more intrigued by the fact that they claimed to know nothing about the author Magnus Flyte. He appeared to have operated under several identities, and may have ties to one or more intelligence organizations, including the CIA, the Mossad, and a radical group of Antarctic separatists. They also claimed that the manuscript came manually typed on Marrakesh's Hotel La Mamounia stationary, and mailed to offices of Penguin Books in New York in January 2012.

But almost immediately, I was hooked, hooked by the story, the mystery, the fantasy, the alchemy, the romance, the music, and the old world charm that is Prague - home to emperors, alchemists, astronomers, and, as it's whispered, hell portals.

When impoverish grad student Sarah Weston lands a summer job at Prague Castle cataloging Beethoven's manuscripts, she has no idea how dangerous her life is about to become. Upon arrival, she learns that her mentor, who was working at the castle, may not have committed suicide, and the cryptic notes he left could be warnings.

What reviewers called "a rom-com paranormal suspense" could simply be one of the most entertaining novels of the year. Will appeal to fans of Deborah Harkness and Beatriz Williams.

It turns out Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey (see FFF blog) and Christina Lynch. Howrey was with the Joffrey Ballet and winner of the Ovation Award. Lynch is a television writer and former Milan correspondent for W magazine.

Small Gems - Short Story Collections

Shorter days, short on time, short attention span? We've got you covered. Take a look at these fabulous short-story collections on our New Book shelves.

Award-winning, Ann Arbor's homegrown Steven Gillis gives us The Law of Strings and Other Stories which fellow author Michael Griffith called "a revelation - strange, barbed and original" - an existential yelp examining individual choices and our all-too-human response to unexpected events. Will please fans of Aimee Bender and George Saunders (BTW, don't miss his brand new SS collection coming out in January - blew me away! and that MacArthur grant is so well-deserved).

The Lives of Things : short stories collects Nobel laureate José Saramago's early short stories, infused with satire and fantastical elements and showcasing his efforts to expose the tyranny of the Salazar regime in his native Portugal.

Karen Brown leads off her SS collection (a FFF) with the titular Little Sinners - stories that capture the domestic world in all its blighted promises, a world where women's roles in housekeeping, marriage, childbirth, and sex have been all too well defined, and where the characters fashion, recklessly and passionately, their own methods of escape. This winner of the Prairie Schooner Book Prize in Fiction will appeal to fans of Lucia Perillo's fabulous Happiness is a Chemical in the Brain (also a FFF, see blog).

This Will be Difficult to Explain : and other stories by Scotiabank Giller Prize winning author Johanna Skibsrud, is 9 loosely connected stories with an unforgettable cast of characters. A young maid at a hotel in France encounters a man who asks to paint her portrait, only to find out later that he is someone other than who she thinks. A divorced father, fearing estrangement from his thirteen-year-old daughter, allows her to take the wheel of his car before he realizes that being a grave mistake.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #370

Based on the 80 year-old unsolved murder case of Dorothy Dexter Moormeister, City of Saints * * by debut novelist Andrew Hunt is the 2011 Tony Hillerman Prize winner.

On a cold February morning in 1930, Salt Lake City Sheriff Deputy Art Oveson is called to a gruesome crime scene where young Helen Pfalzgraf, wife of a prominent physician, lay battered and dead in an open field. As it is an election year, Art and his foul-mouthed partner Roscoe Lund are under great pressure to quickly solve this high-profile case.

Among the suspects are the victim's husband, her adoring step-daughter, and her many lovers. The investigations take Oveson and Lund into the underbelly of Salt Lake City, a place rife with blackmail and corruption, underneath a veneer of "upright Mormonism and congeniality".

This engrossing...procedural steadily builds up steam and explodes in all the right places".

"(T)his hard-edged whodunit with echoes of James Ellroy warrants a sequel."

Andrew Hunt is a professor of history in Waterloo, Ontario. He grew up in Salt Lake City.

* * = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #339, The Boys of Summer (Revised)

A Land More Kind Than Home, the title drawn from Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again is set in Marshall, North Carolina where evil is allowed to disguise as faith.

Narrated alternately by Adelaide Lyle, an aged local midwife, the taciturn County Sheriff Clem Barefield, and young Jesse Hall, our 9 year-old protagonist, as they are drawn into the tragedy that involves Jesse's mute and autistic older brother.

"As lean and spare as a mountain ballad, Wiley Cash's (author website) debut novel resonates perfectly, so much so that it could easily have been expanded to epic proportions. An evocative work about love, fate and redemption". THIS TITLE HAS JUST BEEN PICKED BY LIBRARY JOURNAL AS ONE OF 10 BEST BOOKS OF 2012 !!! Worth a look if you didn't catch it the first time around...

Tom Wright sweeps us up in a tale of lost innocence in his debut What Dies in Summer *

Teenager James Beaudry "Biscuit" is taken in by his grandmother when home life becomes dangerous with his "Uncle" Jack. With his cousin LA (Lee Ann) they look forward to a bucolic Texas summer, until they come across the body of a girl brutally raped and murdered. Jim's recurring vision of the dead girl and the ensuring police investigation put the cousins in harm's way.

"Wright, a practicing psychologist, expertly weaves together a literary tapestry of self-discovery, brutal sadistic violence, custodial battles, and tender, burgeoning sexuality, leaving readers spellbound by a story that delivers on several levels."

Worthy additions to the Southern Gothic genre, and great YA crossovers, they will appeal to those who liked Stephen Wetta's If Jack's in Love, and Tom Franklin's Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #369

Writing for the first time as B.A. Shapiro, Barbara Shapiro's The Art Forger is a richly-detailed and well-researched literary thriller based on the 1990 art heist at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum where 13 works of art (download the images) worth over $500 million were stolen, making it the largest unsolved art crime in history.

In this "classy and pleasurably suspenseful debut", "a cleverly plotted art-world thriller/romance with a murky moral core", Claire Roth, on the 21st anniversary of the heist, is presented by Aiden Markel, the handsome owner of a prestigious gallery with a Faustian bargain: if she agrees to forge one of the Degas masterpieces (fictional) stolen from the Gardner, he would arrange for a one-woman show of her works in his gallery. But when the Degas is delivered to her studio, Claire begins to suspect that it too, may be a forgery. Luckily for both of them, Claire is as fine a sleuth as she is an artist because their freedom (and their lives) are now hanging in the balance.

"The result is an entrancingly visual, historically rich, deliciously witty, sensuous, and smart tale of authenticity versus fakery in which Shapiro artfully turns a clever caper into a provocative meditation on what we value most".

Shapiro’s next project is a novel about the early years of the abstract expressionists, when many worked for the Works Progress Administration. Eleanor Roosevelt is a character. Can't wait.

Will appeal to fans of the popular television seriesWhite Collar (about to start its 4th season in January), Carson Morton's Stealing Mona Lisa, The Forgery of Venus by Michael Gruber, and Theft : a love story by Peter Carey.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #368

Death in Breslau * * introduces to US readers Marek Krajewski, an award-winning Polish crime writer and linguist, and at the same time, the first of a stylish and moody historic detective series featuring Inspector Eberhard Mock.

Breslau (present-day Wroclaw),1933. The city is in the grip of the Gestapo. Two young women are found murdered on a train, scorpions writhing on their bodies, and a bloody indecipherable note on the wall. Police Inspector Eberhard Mock is roused from his weekly assignation at a house of ill-repute to investigate. The urgency is heightened as one of the victim is the daughter of a powerful Breslau baron.

As Mock and his young troubled assistant Herbert Anwaldt plunge into the city's squalid underbelly for clues, the case takes on a dark twist of the occult when the mysterious note indicates a ritual killing with roots in the Crusades.

"Mock is a compelling protagonist, part Hercule Poirot and part thug, who uses blackmail as a standard investigative tool. He also has a weakness for nubile young Jewish women and chess-playing prostitutes. Krajewski's characterization of the prewar Nazis as a murderous lot who spend most of their time scheming against each other and indulging their various libidinous kinks is intriguing, but what makes this novel a stunner is the detailed portrait of Breslau in the otherworldly, uberdecadent, interwar years."

"(I)ntelligent, atmospheric... with a distinctly European, Kafkaesque sensibility", it will appeal to international and historic crime fiction fans, especially those who follow the Bernie Gunther series by Philip Kerr; and the The Liebermann Papers series by Frank Tallis, set in Freud's dangerous, dazzling Vienna.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #367

In late 18th century Sweden, the Octavo is a form of fortune-telling (cartomancy) with playing cards that reveals the 8 persons when identified, could influence favorably, a significant event in one's life.

In Karen Engelmann's debut novel The Stockholm Octavo * * * Emil Larsson, a low-level bureaucrat is under pressure to marry. His sight is set on Carlotta Vingstrom, a voluptuous woman of means and connection. Mrs. Sparrow who runs a gaming establishment uses the Octavo to weave a special fortune for Emil, charging him with finding the eight people in his life who can make or break his future - a search that becomes dangerous when his ambitions become enmeshed in a larger scenario involving a plot against King Gustav himself. As 8 characters emerges, they each have their own story to tell, from Fredrik Lind, the gregarious calligrapher, to the Nordéns, refugees from France. In the midst of the intrigue is the folding fan owned by a lady known simply as the Uzanne.

"Mysterious, suspenseful, and, at times, action-packed, ...Engelmann has crafted a magnificent story set against the vibrant society of Sweden's zenith, with a cast of colorful characters balanced at a crux of history."

Literary entertainment at its best, and "a stylish work by an author of real promise". For fans of Andrew Miller, especially Pure (2012); and David Liss.

* * * = starred reviews

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