Fabulous Fiction Firsts #365

Peter May is no stranger to mystery fans. Beside several stand-alones, he is the author (website) of 2 series: the award-winning Chinese Thrillers (featuring Beijing detective Li Yan and American forensic pathologist Margaret Campbell), and the Enzo Files, featuring Scottish forensic scientist Enzo Macleod, set in France.

Just released in the US is The Blackhouse * *, first in the Lewis Trilogy, set on the Isle of Lewis in Scotland's Outer Hebrides.

Two bodies are found hanging from trees: one in Edinburgh, the other on the Isle of Lewis. Edinburgh detective Fin Macleod is assigned to the case, bringing him back to Crobost, and to a past haunted by tragedy and regrets.

"A gripping plot, pitch-perfect characterization, and an appropriately bleak setting drive this outstanding series debut". In the acknowledgments, May, who is also a long-time television dramatist, reveals that he drew much of his inspiration from five years filming on the island.

Readers might also enjoy Michael Ridpath's Where the Shadows Lie for similar plot, and Tana French for tone. For mysteries with a strong sense of place, try Arnaldur Indriðason, probably the most atmospheric among Nordic crime fiction writers.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulouos Fiction Firsts #364

Michael Ennis's The Malice of Fortune * is a historical thriller on a vibrant canvas and an epic scale - a must for Bravo's The Borgias fans.

Holding her young son hostage, Pope Alexander VI dispatches former courtesan, Damiata, to the remote fortress city of Imola to learn the truth behind the murder of Juan, his most beloved illegitimate son. Once there Damiata becomes a pawn in the political machinations between the charismatic Duke Valentino and the condottieri, a powerful and brutal cabal of mercenary warlords which Damiata suspects. As the murders multiply, she enlists the help of an obscure Florentine diplomat Niccolo Machiavelli, and an eccentric military engineer, Leonardo da Vinci to decipher the killer's taunting riddles.

Ennis, museum curator, former faculty (University of Texas) and an expert on Renaissance history and art, bases this well-researched novel on actual events in the final weeks of the year 1502, as witnessed and faithfully documented in Machiavelli's The Prince, while deliberately burying the truth between its lines.

"This is a dense narrative, permeated by the sights, sounds and smells of Renaissance Italy, and one that can stand shoulder to shoulder with Umberto Eco's Name of the Rose, with which it is sure to be compared".

"Fans of superior historical mystery writers such as Steven Saylor (The Gordianus series set in ancient Rome) and Laura Joh Rowland (mysteries set in Edo Japan) will be enthralled".

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #363

The audio edition of Chuck Greaves' mystery series debut Hush Money * * is not to be missed.

Performed by Dan Butler - actor/director with TV credits for Frasier, Monk, House, and film credits for The Silence of the Lambs and Enemy of the State, it captured perfectly, the wisecracking Jack MacTaggart and the Southern California setting.

When Hush Puppy, Pasadena socialite Sydney Everett's champion show horse, dies under suspicious circumstances, junior lawyer Jack MacTaggart is assigned to handle the insurance claim. But the case soon takes an unexpected turn, thrusting Jack into a spiraling web of blackmail and murder in which he finds himself both the prime suspect and the next likely victim.

Winner of the SouthWest Writers (SWW) grand-prize Storyteller Award for 2010 and the Best Mystery of 2010, former LA trial lawyer Greaves "cleverly intermingles equestrian show jumping, insurance claims, and high-tech science in this sunny California thriller" in Hush Money.

The humor will please fans of Spencer Quinn's Chet and Bernie series, and Robert B. Parker's Spenser fans will find MacTaggart a new hero to root for.

* * = starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #362

Award-winning poet Douglas Nicholas beautifully evokes 13th century England in his debut novel Something Red *, " a haunting story of love, murder, and sorcery. "

It was the coldest winter in memory, Mistress Molly, a traveling Irish healer must find shelter in the Pennine Mountains for her troupe before heavy snow set in. They sought refuge in a monastery where they first became aware of the presence of a mysterious evil force. There they met fellow travelers both humble and high-born, and soon realized that danger was lurking around them. Nothing was as it seemed, and the journey for survival was as magical as it was perilous.

"An intoxicating blend of fantasy and mythology, Something Red presents an enchanting world full of mysterious and fascinating characters - shapeshifters, sorceresses, warrior monks, and knights, where no one is safe from the terrible being that lurks in the darkness".

"Nicholas puts his flair for language and imagery to good use in his atmospheric first novel....A wickedly clever and evocative combination of history, horror, mystery, and magic."

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #361

Known as the Babe Ruth of Bank Robbers, Willie Sutton, one of the most notorious criminals in American history is also a folk hero to some. He stole over $2 millions, often in costumes (thus dubbed "the actor"), engineered dramatic prison breaks and was serving virtually a life sentence when he received a surprise pardon on Christmas Eve in 1969.

In his debut novel, Sutton *, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter J. R. Moehringer relays, in electrifying prose, the highs and lows of Sutton's dramatic life, from the thrill of the heist and his great, doomed love affair to the brutal interrogations by cops and the hell of years spent in solitary confinement, all the while probing the psyche of an enigmatic man who had a genius for thievery and an even greater capacity for self-delusion.

"A captivating and absorbing read", that will appeal to true crime fans who enjoyed Catch Me if You Can : the amazing true story of the youngest and most daring con man in the history of fun and profit! by Frank W. Abagnale, Jr. (as a feature film).

For biographical fiction of other famous crime figures, try Bill Brooks' Bonnie and Clyde : a love story and And All the Saints by Michael Walsh, based on the life of Owen "Owney" Madden, the most influential mobster of the 20th century.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #360

In the first of the Valencian crime series, debut novelist Jason Webster introduced Chief Inspector Max Camara in Or the Bull Kills You * * (2011) where he is roped into investigating the grisly murder of a star matador. Not only does he hate bullfighting but what he finds on the blood-stained sand shocks the city of Valencia to its core.

In the follow-up, A Death in Valencia * Max is feeling low and virtually homeless (now that! ... is another story in itself). On the eve of a papal visit, the body of a well-known (and Max's favorite) paella chef washes up on the beach, drawing Max into a web of corruption and violence as he tried to untangle these threads.

"Dark and witty..., the plot is fast and twisting, the scene-setting vivid, and the atmosphere powerfully authentic, showcasing the determined, lonesome Camara, with his love of flamenco and brandy, and occasional doped-out high, A Death in Valencia delves into issues that rouse unruly passions and divide the Spanish people today."

"The undercurrent of melancholy, as Camara finds himself in conflict with the powers-that-be, sets this apart from the usual Southern European procedural/whodunit ". Will appeal to fans of the brooding, sexy Aurelio Zen Series by Michael Dibdin (now available as a PBS Masterpiece Mystery series).
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Born in California, journalist and travel writer Jason Webster (website) moved to Spain in 1993. He lives near Valencia with his wife, the flamenco dancer, Salud.

* * = starred reviews
* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #359

Wednesday, October 10th at 7pm, author Peter Geye will be at Nicola's for a discussion and signing of his new novel The Lighthouse Road *, in which a young immigrant woman in 1890s Duluth, finds herself alone in a new country, abandoned and adrift. In the early 1920s, her orphan son, now grown, falls in love with the one woman he shouldn't and uses his best skills to build them their own small ark to escape. "Peter Geye has crafted another deeply moving tale of a misbegotten family shaped by the rough landscape in which they live--often at the mercy of wildlife and weather."

His first novel Safe from the Sea (in audio, nicely performed by David Aaron Baker), is "an archetypal story of a father and son, of the tug and pull of family bonds, (and) of Norwegian immigrant culture". Antique map-dealer Noah Torrs reluctantly returns from Boston to the lakeside cabin north of Duluth to spend time with his estranged father Olaf, who is dying. Once a curmudgeonly, headstrong ship's captain, and one of three survivors from the coal freighter Ragnarok that sank on Lake Superior, Olaf is still haunted after 35 years by the memory a friend he felt he could have saved and the catastrophic repercussions for his young family.

"Geye tackles the subjects of death, dying, and living with admirable insight and courage." For readers who enjoy David Guterson, Robert Olmstead , and Canadians Joseph Boyden and Stef Penney.

A Minnesota native, Peter Geye (webiste) received his Ph.D. from Western Michigan University , where he taught Creative Writing and was editor of Third Coast.

* = starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #358

UM grad (MFA) Scott Hutchins, a Truman Capote Fellow in the Wallace Stegner Program, a current faculty in Creative Writing at Stanford, will be in Ann Arbor at Nicola's on Tuesday, October 16, at 7 pm to read and sign his debut novel A Working Theory of Love.

Smarting from a recent divorce, Neill Bassett Jr. accepts a job with Amiante Systems, an artificial intelligence start-up in the Bay Area, and tries to put his life back together. With a degree in business marketing and absolutely no experience in computer science, he nevertheless is the perfect man for the job since it is his father's diaries, with spectacularly quotidian details, that will eventually become the world's first sentient computer. For 2 years, Neill has been giving it language using his father's words, and the computer actually appears to be gaining awareness and, most disconcerting of all, has started asking questions.

While his feelings for his ex. is unresolved, he meets Rachel, a one-night-stand who continues to surprise and upset his self-imposed isolation. When Neill discovers a missing year in the diaries, he senses that it could hold the secrets to his father's suicide 10 year ago, but everything Neill thought he knew about his past comes into question.

"With a lightness of touch that belies pitch-perfect emotional control, Scott Hutchins takes us on an odyssey of love, grief, and reconciliation that shows us how, once we let go of the idea that we're trapped by our own sad histories, our childhoods, our bad decisions, our miscommunications with those we loved, we have the chance to truly be free".

"First-time novelist Hutchins manages to address weighty questions (e.g., what makes us human?) without ever losing his sly sense of humor in this witty, insightful Silicon Valley comedy of manners."

"Clever and extensive navel-gazing is modulated by tenderness, humor and charm".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #357

Brooklyn bookseller and author of a short-story collection (Other People We Married, 2011) Emma Straub gives us an enchanting story of a Midwestern girl who escapes a family tragedy and is remade as a movie star during Hollywood's golden age in Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures * *, her debut novel.

At 17, Elsa Emerson, born to an amateur theatrical family in Door County, Wisconsin hops gamely on the bus that carries her and her young actor husband to Hollywood after a family tragedy. Two quick successive babies and a dissolving marriage later, she is discovered by one of the most powerful studio executives in Hollywood, who refashions her as a serious, exotic brunette and renames her Laura Lamont. Along with all the glamor and extravagance of stardom, Laura finds herself trying to balance career, family, friendship, personal happiness, while remaining true to herself.

"Straub offers a charming tale spanning 50 years. Her strength is an ability to foster originality by turning her back on the stereotyped assumptions of the lives of movie stars whose backstories feed the magic."

"Written in a removed prose, Straub brings Elsa to life with the detached analysis of an actor examining a character, exemplifying Elsa's own remote relationship to her identity. Through marriages, births, deaths, and career upheavals, Elsa and Laura coexist, sometimes uneasily—until Elsa learns to reconcile her two selves. An engaging epic of a life that captures the bittersweetness of growing up, leaving home, and finding it again."

For novels about the entertainment industry and lives and loves of the glitterati, you might enjoy Third Girl From the Left by Martha Southgate (2005); Tilly Bagshawe's Adored (2005); Glen David Gold's Sunnyside (2009) about Charlie Chaplin; and The Chaperone by Laura Moriarty (2012).

* *= Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #356

Anyone interested in rollicking adventure, puzzle-solving/code-breaking, the history of books and printing, digital technology, conspiracy theory, secret societies, quirky San Francisco (Did I catch just about everybody?) would find Robin Sloan's Mr. Penumbra's 24-hour Bookstore * immensely enjoyable. (Coming out in October, I will be doing a lot of hand-selling in the meantime. Get on the waiting list if I were you. )

It didn't take long for Clay Jannon, an unemployed graphic artist/web designer to realize that Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore is anything but the obvious. Working the grave-yard shift, his customers never buy but "borrow" archaic volumes according to some elaborate scheme. Mr. Penumbra's strict missive of never looking into any of the volumes produces just the opposite effect and soon, Clay finds himself, and his willing dot.com recruits plunging (Googlers figure prominently in the plot and the solution) head-long into a heroic quest of complex code-breaking, high-tech data visualization, and digging at the truth behind secrets that reach back to the famous Venetian printer Aldus­ Manutius. "A gleeful and exhilarating tale".

"With irresistible brio and dazzling intelligence, Robin Sloan has crafted a literary adventure story for the twenty-first century, evoking both the fairy-tale charm of Haruki Murakami and the enthusiastic novel-of-ideas wizardry of Neal Stephenson or a young Umberto Eco, but with a unique and feisty sensibility that's rare to the world of literary fiction."

Debut novelist Robin Sloan, a native of Michigan is a gradate of Michigan State University (Economics). He was a member of the Media Partnerships team at Twitter before becoming a writer and a "media inventor".

* = starred review

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