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

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

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