Fabulous Fiction Firsts #151

The Tourist*, a new stand-alone from Edgar-finalist Olen Steinhauer, is a spy-thriller being compared by critics to the genre classics of John leCarre, Graham Greene and Len Deighton.

Milo Weaver used to be a “tourist” - A CIA undercover agent with no home, no identity. Now retired, he has a 9-5 desk job at the Company’s New York office, a family and a brownstone in Brooklyn. However, when the arrest of a long-sought-after assassin sets off an investigation into one of Milo’s old cases, he has no choice but to go back undercover and to find out who’s pulling the strings.

This "superbly accomplished", "richly nuanced" tale introduces to Steinhauer readers (of his excellent Eastern European quintet) a new hero in Weaver - who is smart but sometimes not smart enough and who toils at a soul-crushing job utterly alone. Film rights sold to George Clooney.

* = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #150

It is 1962, Jackson, Mississippi. 22 year-old Skeeter has a college degree but it worries her mother that she does not have a ring on her finger. Aibileen, a black maid, is heartsick over losing her son but no one could doubt her devotion to yet another white child she is raising. Minny, Aibileen's best friend, is short and sassy, with a sharp tongue that gets her fired left and right. But boy, could she cook!

Seemingly as different from one another as can be, these women will nonetheless come together for a clandestine project that will put them all at risk.

In pitch-perfect voices, debut novelist Kathryn Stockett creates three extraordinary women whose determination to start a movement of their own forever changes a town; and the way women, mothers, daughters, caregivers, and friends view one another.

"A deeply moving novel filled with poignancy, humor, and hope, The Help is a timeless and universal story about the lines we abide by, and the ones we don't".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #149

Pictures at an Exhibition, a title borrowed from the familiar Mussorgsky's suite for piano, is an impressive debut by novelist Sara Houghteling.

Picture presents a realistic rendering of the world of Parisian art dealers before and after the Nazi occupation. Daniel Berenzon, who represents the likes of Matisse and Picasso in his prestigious Paris gallery flees to the South of France during the Occupation. Upon his return, he finds the gallery burned and the hidden masterpieces gone.

It is Rose Clément (drawn from the real-life Louvre curator Rose Valland, whose documentation helped repatriate thousands of paintings) who heroically aids Max (Daniel's son) in his desperate effort to recover the stolen art. (The 1964 film The Train was inspired by this historical footnote).

A Hopwood Awards winner, Houghteling received her Masters in Fine Arts from the University of Michigan and a Fulbright to study paintings that went missing during the war. Her vivid descriptions of paintings and their power add to the allure of the novel.

Readers interested in the Nazi looting of art treasures across Europe should check out Lynn Nicholas' The Rape of Europa: the fate of Europe's treasures in the Third Reich and the Second World War or the documentation at the National Archive on the subject.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #148

Three-time Edgar Award winner Joe Gores' Spade & Archer is the only authorized (by Dashiell Hammett's daughter) prequel to The Maltese Falcon (1930).

When Sam Spade gets drawn into the Maltese Falcon case, we know what to expect -- straight talk, hard questions, no favors, and no way for anyone to get underneath the protective shell he wears like a second skin. We know that Spade is sleeping with his late partner Archer’s wife, Iva. What we don’t know is how Spade becomes who he is. Spade & Archer completes the picture, beginning in 1921 when Spade sets up his own agency in San Francisco.

"The author (who lives in Marin County in the Bay Area) not only does a brilliant job of bringing Prohibition-era San Francisco to life with street-level detail and a native's perspective, but also captures Hammett's spare style and tone perfectly".

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #147

In the summer of 1978, Natalia Keim abandons her husband for another man, leaving Jack to raise their girls alone. Eva, seventeen, plunges into an affair with her married high school teacher while nine-year-old Sissy escapes to a world of imagination. Down the street, ten-year-old Vicki Anderson rides her bike to the local park and is never seen again.

When Natalia unexpectedly returns, the Keims are forced to piece together their complicated pasts and commitments to each other.

"In this haunting, atmospheric debut, Sandra Novack examines loss, loyalty, and a family in crisis. Lyrical and elegiac, Precious* attempts to make sense of the volatility that surrounds and consumes us, and explores our ability, even during the most trying times, to remember and hold on to those we love most." A lovely read to curl up with.

Readers might also try Leah Hager Cohen's gorgeous and lyrical Heat Lightning.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #146

In Abraham Verghese's Cutting for Stone, the twin sons of a secret love affair between an Indian nun and a British surgeon in Addis Ababa, Marion and Shiva Stone are orphaned by their mother's death in childbirth and father's disappearance. Coming of age in an Ethiopia on the brink of revolution, they are bound together by a shared interest in medicine and forever divided by their love for the same woman.

"An unforgettable journey into one man’s remarkable life, and an epic story about the power, intimacy, and curious beauty of the work of healing others". Moving, elegant, and beautifully written.

Lauded for his sensitive memoir about his time as a doctor in eastern Tennessee at the onset of the AIDS epidemic in the '80s, Verghese turns his formidable talents to fiction, mining his own life and experiences. Board-certified in internal medicine and in pulmonary and infectious diseases, he attended the Iowa Writers Workshop and is currently on the faculty at Stanford University.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #145

Fans of NPR-Books shouldn't miss first-novelist Jamie Ford's interview and discussion of his Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.

Set in Seattle 1942, shortly after Pearl Harbor, amidst mounting racial tension and the frenzy of Japanese Americans' relocation, is the heartwarming story of Henry Lee, his first love Keiko Okabe and their shared passion for jazz.

For a closer look at this chapter in our shared history, see the Manzanar Series - images captured by Ansel Adams. Readers might also try Sandra Dallas' Tallgrass, a vivid portrayal of life in the internment camps and how they, forever altered our cultural landscape.

Also recommended is Disappearing Moon Cafe by Sky Lee, "...a feisty, complex, and award-winning first novel" - an intimate look at the many facets of Chinatown USA.

Read more about Jamie Ford from his website and the Panama Hotel on which the title is based. For book groups, a discussion guide is available.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #144

Norman Green's latest The Last Gig* is the first in a projected series featuring teen shamus Al(essandra) Martillo - a Puerto Rican runaway from Bronx.

Tough and street-smart, Al might have taken on more than she had bargained for when hired by Mickey Caughlan, head of a local Irish mob, to uncover the traitor within.

While the storyline might have been rather straightforward, it is Al who steals the show - "She fights like a Valkyrie, loves hard, runs scared at times, stand tall when it matter, is sexy, endearing and just about the freshest heroine to enhance genre fiction in forever" ~Kirkus. Now that's sounds like a winner to me!

* = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #143

Looking for your Dream House* ? Beware of that small clapboard house on Macon Street, not far from the campus of the University of Michigan (fictitious, of course).

Pushcart Prize winner Valerie Laken's first novel is one stunning cautionary tale. Hoping to rekindle their troubled marriage while renovating a historic house in Ann Arbor, Kate and Stuart Kinzler learn that the house had been the scene of a devastating murder some 20 years earlier while the Prices, a working-class black family, lived there.

When Stuart walks out in the middle of Kate's ambitious remodeling, Kate forms new relationships with two men who have ties to the murder and the house.

"Laken is masterful at character construction as she explores issues of race and class and conveys the wreckage of individual lives and the emotions evoked by a house that is the source of joy and dreams as well as the site of tragedy." You might be interested in Mary Beth Lewis' article in the February issue of the Ann Arbor Observer on Laken's own Ann Arbor "dream house" experience.

On the theme of historic renovation, readers would find much delight in Katie Fforde's charming and witty Restoring Grace, or John Smolens' moody, suspenseful mystery, set in Michigan's Upper Peninsula - Fire Point.

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #142

Janice Y.K. Lee's debut novel The Piano Teacher* opens in 1952, when naive and newly married (to a minor colonial administrator) Claire Pendleton is hired by the wealthy Chen family as a piano instructor. Seduced by the lavish lifestyle of Hong Kong's expatriate community, she begins an affair with the Chen's English chauffer, Will Truesdale who is deeply marked by a tragic past during the Japanese Occupation.

Shifting back and forth between Clair's story in 1952 and Will's war-torn Hong Kong 10 years prior, the narrative is a lush examination of East-West relations and a rich and intimate look at what happens to people under extraordinary circumstances.

Readers interested in this time period might also want to check out the intensely political, thrillingly erotic, Ailing Zhang's (Eileen Chang) Lust, Caution, a novel on which a hauntingly moving and seductive Ang Lee film is based.

Others interested in the expat. experience might enjoy Oswald Wynd's The Ginger Tree (1977).

* = Starred Reviews

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