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

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #366

Mrs. Queen Takes the Train is historian/biographer William Kuhn's first foray into fiction and I hope, with more to follow.

On a cold and drippy November afternoon, The Queen, suffering from a recent bout of melancholia found herself walking towards Jermyn Street looking for cheddar - a special kind for her horse Elizabeth. Remembering happier times, she caught a train heading for Edinburgh where the royal yacht Britannia is docked as a tourist attraction. Meanwhile, in Buckingham Palace her royal attendants, fearing the worst, frantically searched for clues as to her whereabouts while fending off MI5, eager to chase down the errant monarch, hopefully one step ahead of the tabloids.

"Kuhn explores not only the queen's inner life (and the secrets she carries in that iconic purse), but the Downton Abbey style-tensions between servants and royals, the old guard and the new. The servants are the real stars here".... Among them is William, her butler, Lady Anne (her Lady-in-Waiting), her Chief Dresser Shirley (from humble beginnings but definitely the Queen's confidant), and Luke Thomason, her equerry, a decorated young officer recently returned from Iraq, wounds and all. Their back stories, their inner lives, and their friendship are engaging, but it is their utterly selfless devotion to the Crown that shines through.

Fans of Lilibet would enjoy Sue Townsend's immensely entertaining The Queen and I, and as brilliantly and sympathetically portrayed in The Queen by Dame Helen Mirren.

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

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