February Books to Film, Part 1 (and a Fabulous Fiction Firsts)

Crazy heartsCrazy hearts

"Overlooked Literary Darling Gets a Second Act" reads the caption on a Publishers Weekly article about an indie film (wide release February 2 but already in Ann Arbor theaters this past weekend) based on the 1987 novel Crazy Heart by a first-time author Thomas Cobb.

Jeff Bridges plays Bad Blake, a 57 year-old singer, guitarist, songwriter, alcoholic womanizer, and all-around charming reprobate, who attempts to work his way back to the top of the country-and-western charts. Maggie Gyllenhaal, is the journalist determined to find the real man behind the musician.

The novel received glowing praise ("...just might be the finest country-western novel ever written") when it debuted, but did not translate into sales or lasting recognition for Cobb. A second book (2003) and a new novel in 2008 published to little fanfare. HarperPerennial, who is republishing Crazy counts on it being an overdue break-out for the author.

(I have it on good authority that the film is crazy good. Don't miss it!!)

Dear John (opening February 5th), is based on a novel of duty, longing, and heartbreak, by Nicholas Sparks .

A soldier home on leave falls for a conservative college girl. Instead of returning home to her, he re-enlists after the attacks on September 11th, 2001. Time and distance begin to take a toll on the young lovers. Channing Tatum plays the title role, with Amanda Seyfried as Savannah.

Fabulous Fiction First #193

Tamar Myers, author of two ongoing domestic mystery series - one featuring Magdalena Yoder, an Amish-Mennonite sleuth who runs a bed and breakfast, and the other - Den of Antiquity, centers around the adventures of Abigail Timberlake, the proud owner of an antique store, now brings us a stand-alone.

The Witch Doctor's Wife* is set in tiny Belle Vue, a Congolese village in the 1950s where a prim American missionary, her cranky housekeeper, a sleazy executive, a witch doctor and a large uncut diamond all come into play. Before you know it, one of the most delightful characters is charged with murder.

Myers draws from her personal history to bring insight and local color to a specific place in time. Publishers Weekly considers this " a major breakthrough for Myers as she displays storytelling skills not seen in her previous works".

Fans of mysteries by Alexander McCall Smith , Malla Nunn, and Michael Stanley are sure to relish the opportunity to explore another intriguing area of Africa.

* = Starred review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #192

Blacklands*** is a taut and chillingly brilliant debut by British journalist/screenwriter Belinda Bauer.

Steven Lamb, an under-sized 12 yr. old boy, armed with a shovel, could be seen digging along the wild moors of Shipcott (Somerset), oblivious to the weather. He is digging for treasure - no, not the kind fascinating to boys his age, but for his uncle’s body. 18 years ago, young Billy Peters disappeared and unhinged his family.

Dejected with the lack of results, Steven knows convicted serial killer Arnold Avery could show him where to dig. After all, he buried them. Steven writes and Arnold answers. What begins as a cat-and-mouse mind game between a naive but determined boy and a clever and sadistic pedophile turns deadly when Avery senses an opportunity to relive his crime.

"Bauer displays remarkable talent in pacing, plotting and, most important of all, getting beneath the skin of even her most repellent characters". What was originally conceived as a short story about a boy and his grandmother (from the author's note) is likely to be one of the shining stars in crime fiction this year. Shortlisted for the CWA Debut Dagger Award.

Readalikes: Catherine O'Flynn's What Was Lost, and In the Woods by Tana French.

*** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #191

Leila Meacham's debut Roses* is getting huge buzz among advance readers and the publishing community and has been favorably compared to works of Barbara Taylor Bradford and Colleen McCullough (The Thorn Birds).

This multi-generational saga is set in a small East Texas town where two founding families - The Tolivers and the Warwicks (descendants of the houses of Lancaster and York of the War of the Roses fame) control its powerful timber and cotton industries.

When Mary Toliver inherits her family's cotton plantation, Somerset, it tears apart her family; and causes her to lose the love of her life, timber magnate Percy Warwick. Now at 85, Mary is determined the family curse will not claim another generation of Tolivers, and set her plans in motion to sell off the plantation.

Spanning much of the 20th century, this old-fashioned saga of secrets and passion, feud and revenge will entertain and appeal to Gothic-romance readers and moviegoers of such "Southern-fried epics" as Gone with the Wind and Giant (based on a novel by Edna Ferber).

* = Starred Review

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #190

In Victor Lodato’s “phenomenal” debut, Mathilda Savitch***, fearless and observant 13 year-old Mathilda Savitch is determined to sleuth and find the person who pushed her older sister – wild and beautiful Helene, in front of a moving train. Mathilda is convinced that Helene’s secrets lie dormant in their computer and the cryptic and increasingly alarming emails from a stranger will lead her to the killer.

At times heartbreaking and hilarious, the compelling page-tuner grapples with serious issues while never allowing us to lose sight of the immediacy of Mathilda’s chaotic reality, making her a sympathetic and engaging narrator.

Victor Lodato (recipient of Guggenheim and NEA fellowships, winner of numerous awards including the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays), “indelibly captures the fragile vulnerability and fearless bravado of adolescence through Mathilda’s impeccable voice, one that rages with alienation, frustration and confusion as much as it aches with hope, wonder and desire. “

Comparison to Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is inevitable. Highly recommended.

*** = Starred reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #189

Emily Arsenault's charming debut The Broken Teaglass* is quietly getting some much-deserved hand-selling, and I am glad.

Two young lexicographers stumble onto clues scattered among the citations file at the dictionary publishing office where they work. Written as “cits”, they reference a fictitious book called The Broken Teaglass but seem to be a confession to a decade-old unsolved murder case involving the “The Glass Girl”. What begins as curiosity for two active young minds turns strangely personal when many of the players involved clearly resemble their senior colleagues and mentors.

Clever word play, behind-the-scenes look at the dictionary publishing industry, and well-drawn characters make for a delightful, quietly humorous and off-beat mystery. The author has worked as a lexicographer for Merriam-Webster dictionary, an English teacher, a children’s librarian, and a Peace Corps volunteer. She wrote The Broken Teaglass to pass the long, quiet evenings in her mud brick house while living in rural South Africa.

Wordsmiths and puzzle-lovers should also try Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl, and Blind Submission by Debra Ginsberg.

* = Library Journal's Fall 2009 Editors' Picks

Booklist's Top 10 First Novels and Fabulous Fiction Firsts #188

Of Booklist's Top 10 First Novels 2009, 5 of them were blogged here. (Dream House, A Fortunate Age, The Invisible Mountain, Miles from Nowhere, and Precious). Quite a number of them are sitting on the shelves. Perhaps you would give them a second glance now.

And I happened to have just finished a 6th on the list - Grace Hammer : A Novel of the Victorian Underworld by Sara Stockbridge – a gripping and captivating debut novel set amidst the squalor of London’s East End where Grace makes a comfortable living managing her brood of pickpockets. Out of the blue, her checkered past is about to catch up with her. A magnificent ruby necklace might spell her doom. “Fast-paced, racy”, with plenty of intrigue, local color and masterfully realized characters.

Clearly, those folks at Booklist know how to pick them! Highly recommended by my good friend Jen Baker who knows her historical thrillers.

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #187

In Lou Manfredo's Rizzo's War*, veteran NYPD detective Joe Rizzo has always subscribed to the notion that “there is no right, there is no wrong, there just is” – a rule he tries to instill in his movie-star handsome, young and freshly-minted partner Mike McQueen. Their beat – the Bensonhurst, Brooklyn neighborhood where their savvy, courage and compassion is called on daily to keep the streets safe. But when a councilman’s daughter goes missing and they are forced to operate under the radar, with dubious boundaries, and no safety net, it is their trust in each other that's sorely tested.

Strongly character-driven, this police procedural sparkles with authenticity. (Born and raised in Brooklyn, Manfredo served in the Brooklyn criminal justice system for twenty-five years). The well-paced plot is firmly anchored in the physicality of the setting. Big city politics, organized crime, corruption, compounded by personal and family drama, old wounds, and new threats add complexity and suspense to the storyline.

Comparison with Joseph Wambaugh's The Choirboys(1975) is inevitable. This projected series debut and FFF will also please fans of the late Ed McBain's ever-popular 87th Precinct mystery series.

* = Starred Reviews

Fabulous Fiction Firsts #186

Seriously one of the best nordic crime fiction of the year, Anders Roslund's projected new series debut Box 21* is violent, horrific, and strangely gripping.

Over the course of a rainy summer's week in Stockholm, a Lithuanian prostitute viciously beaten close to death, three Stockholm police detectives investigating the case, sundry petty criminals, and a young doctor at the edge of despair cross path when one of them holds the the city hostage at gunpoint. While lives are lost, scores settled, secrets unearthed (Locker no. 21), friendship and honor severely tested, it is shame that drives the well-crafted thriller to its explosive and tragic conclusion.

Students of human nature and readers of Maj Sjowall and Per Wahlöo's Martin Beck series, Henning Mankell, and Karin Fossum - "Norway's Queen of Crime," will find this irresistible and affecting.

* = Starred reviews

November's Books to Film

The Box is a horror film based on the 1970 short story Button, Button by Richard Matheson, previously adapted into an episode of The Twilight Zone.

Norma Lewis (Cameron Diaz) is a teacher at a private high school and her husband, Arthur (James Marsden), an engineer working at NASA are, by all accounts, an average couple living a normal life - until a mysterious man appears on their doorstep and presents a life-altering proposition and an impossible moral dilemma: the box.

Almost too bizarre to believe The Men Who Stare at Goats is based on Jon Ronson's (2004) comedic and eye-opening exploration of the government’s attempts to harness paranormal abilities to fight its wars.

Reporter Bob Wilton discovers a top-secret wing of the U.S. military when he accompanies an enigmatic Special Forces operator on a mind-boggling mission. Starring Ewan McGregor, George Clooney, Kevin Spacey, Jeff Bridges.

And if you need ME to tell YOU about New Moon - the second installment of Stephenie Meyer's Twilight saga, then you should just skip it. Seriously! And if you are going, I hope you have tickets in hand already. (Opening Nov. 20th).

Rebecca Miller, a painter and actress before turning her hand to writing and directing, directs the adaptation of her debut novel The Private Lives of Pippa Lee (FFF, 2008).

When her stable public life is disrupted by her older husband's decision to retire to a community, 50-year old Pippa Lee begins to lose her grasp on reality. Embarking on a bittersweet journey of self-discovery, accompanied by a new, strange and soulful acquaintance, Pippa must now confront both her volatile past and the hidden resentment of her seemingly perfect life in order to find her true sense of self.

Previously, Rebecca Miller's feature film adaptation of her short-story collection Personal Velocity (2001) won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance.

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