In The Swans of Fifth Avenue, Melanie Benjamin delivers dazzling characters based on the real women who ran New York’s high society in the 1950s and 1960s. Babe Paley, the wife of CBS President William S. Paley, is at the center of this glamorous group of elite women who include Slim Keith, C. Z. Guest, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Harriman and Marella Agnelli. Enter Truman Capote, a lover of lavish lifestyles and good gossip. As he becomes a fixture in their world, all of the women are captivated with his wit and he in turn gains unrestricted entry to this influential coterie.
On the surface, Capote seems an unlikely candidate to serve as these women’s confidante. But he is a kindred spirit who exudes trustworthiness, prompting these lonely and insecure women to break down emotional barriers. Strong bonds are formed between these ladies who lunch and the lively writer, none stronger than that between Truman and Babe, who trusts her "True Heart" enough to reveal shocking secrets. But when Capote’s literary success stalls, he is desperate to climb back to the top. This despair leads Capote to betray his beautiful swans by publishing an article which reveals their hidden secrets. This selfish act destroys friendships and the repercussions from this article reverberate for years.
Benjamin’s breezy narrative captures the tone of the time and the historical details add interest to the stories of this cast of distinctly drawn characters. The juicy scandals and extravagant lifestyles are balanced by the real struggles of these women and the constrictions upon them due to their position in society. While readers may envy (or despise) their over-the-top lifestyle, Benjamin adroitly demands sympathy for each of these compelling women whose appearance of perfection is a carefully drawn façade. Readers who enjoyed Rules of Civility or The Perfume Collector will relish the historical ambience created by Benjamin. For more on the real swans, check out Marella Agnelli: The Last Swan.
Imagine urban fantasy. Now, remove the skyscrapers and the taxicabs and the cell phones. Replace them with clapboard buildings, dirt tracks and 10-gallon hats. Add a generous pinch of scary stuff. You might come up with a terrible episode of Gunsmoke — or you might get some idea of Holly Messinger’s first novel The Curse of Jacob Tracy.
Jacob Tracy is a novel, but its chapters are grouped into sections that read like short stories that are knit together by an overall plot arc, much like the setup of a TV series. Trace, himself, is a fascinating individual and an extraordinarily engaging and original character. He is a former seminary student and former Confederate soldier. His best friend/traveling companion, Boz, is an illiterate former slave. Though an odder couple is hard to imagine, both have each other’s best interests at heart as they travel the American western frontier, working as trail guides for city folk who are trying new adventures on for size.
Why Trace and Boz refuse to settle down for long is teased out over the several episodes in this book (hint: Trace sees dead people), but their loyalty to each other is never in question…until Trace meets Miss Fairweather, a recluse, who tricks him into performing a “simple task” during the lull season in trail guiding in order to earn much-needed room and board money. Taking Boz with him, because you never leave a friend behind, Trace is forced to start facing the demons of his past when he crashes into the middle of a long-running battle between the forces of the sane and the forces of the mad. The question is: When his visions start to overwhelm him, and he begins to realize Miss Fairweather might have set him up, who can he trust?
Come for the ghosts and not-so-urban legends. Stay for the pragmatic, yin and yang, stronger-than-family friendship of Boz and Trace.
This is Messinger’s first novel, but fans of the Harry Dresden novels or fans of online zine Beneath Ceaseless Skies (wherein Messinger has published short stories) will certainly approve of this story.
The first “romance” book I have read in over 20 years, Shana Galen’s I Kissed a Rogue has brought me back into the fold. It has everything I remember from my Regency romance reading days — a damsel in distress, a love-hate relationship and a rogue.
After being kidnapped and held captive in London’s slum, Lady Lillian-Anne (Lila), daughter of the Duke of Lennox, witnesses a murder. Her father hires Sir Brook Derring to find her, the same Brook Derring who asked Lila to marry him seven years ago. Though Lady Lila has not thought of Brook for the last seven years, he has not forgotten her and the spoiled, selfish girl she was. Brook wants nothing to do with Lila, but the Duke has enlisted the help of the king and has forced Brook’s hand. He has to marry Lila to protect her until he can find out who kidnapped her. While married and hiding out in a rundown cottage, Lila quickly falls for Brook even though she knows he wants nothing to do with her. Can Brook forgive Lila for breaking his heart all those years ago? Will Brook see Lila has changed from the girl she was and find a way to love her?
I Kissed a Rogue and I liked it! This is the third in the Covent Garden Cubs series, and although I did not read the first two books in this series, Earls Just Want to Have Fun and The Rogue You Know, I did not miss a beat falling right into the storyline.
Janice Lee’s new book The Expatriates immerses readers in the lives of three women who must navigate the affluent and insular world of American expatriates living in Hong Kong. The twists and turns of their intertwined lives make this book impossible to put down. Lee’s characters are amazingly realistic and beautifully drawn. Readers cannot help but feel compassion for them even when they aren’t exactly likeable. In this sharp social satire, readers are invited into the funniest moments of their lives as well as the darkest.
Mercy is floundering with no plan after graduating from Columbia, so she decides to look for opportunities abroad. Shortly after her arrival in Hong Kong, a tragic accident causes her to collapse in on herself, unable and unwilling to try to move past this event. Hilary is desperate to have a child, hoping it might save her shaky marriage. Margaret and her family move when her husband accepts a career opportunity, and she is content with her new role as a stay-at-home mother. When the family suffers a horrific loss, she can no longer recognize herself or begin to figure out what to do next.
These women exist in a “fishbowl” where everyone seems to know everyone else and their story, but Lee illustrates how the self presented to the world can be completely different from the self rippling beneath the surface.
Hong Kong is so much a part of the story that it becomes another complex and vibrant character itself. Lee only really delves into the “American Zone” of the city, but she creates a clear sense of this strange place, and we can see how the city is as changeable as the characters inhabiting it.
Readers who enjoy this will love Lee’s first novel The Piano Teacher, as well as Paradise City by Elizabeth Day.
South Korea is claiming a seat at the world’s literary table with the February release of female novelist Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, translated by Londoner Deborah Smith. The novel was originally published in 2007 in South Korea as three separate novellas. The Vegetarian unites these related stories, which all center around Yeong-hye, a young woman described by those close to her as plain and unremarkable. That is, until she becomes tormented by recurring dreams of unspeakable horrors — dreams she associates with eating meat.
Her husband, the narrator of the first part of the novel, is alarmed when he finds her frantically throwing away the animal contents of their refrigerator. He immediately reminds her of the monetary costs, to no avail. Yeong-hye not only avoids all animal products but eats little at all and begins to rapidly lose weight. Her health declines but the dreams continue. Others scoff at her newfound vegan diet, while her blustering, domineering father decides to force-feed her during a family dinner to disastrous, far-reaching results.
The second part of the novel takes us forward in time, and this time the narrator is the husband of Yeong-hye’s sister, who is a successful and driven businesswoman and mother. The brother-in-law is an artist who has yet to find an audience for his work. He is obsessed with Yeong-hye, determined to use her as the centerpiece of an artistic, sexually graphic film conceived with her in mind. This middle portion of The Vegetarian takes the quiet yet alarmingly dark tone of the beginning and adds a brooding, hypnotic eroticism. What is it about Yeong-hye that bewitches him and causes him to risk everything? Is he driven by art, or merely lust?
The final part of The Vegetarian is told by the sister, whose life has been upended by both Yeong-hye’s actions and her stubborn convictions. Yeong-hye’s mental health is rapidly declining, or so it seems. Is there something much bigger lurking beneath her usual, seemingly placid exterior? Her rejection of the human world takes her to a startling place.
The Vegetarian is calm, cool, unflinchingly dark and unsettling. Readers looking for an intellectual and philosophical challenge will enjoy working out the rich symbolism for themselves, making this an excellent choice for book clubs with a literary bent.
Music connects us regardless of gender, age and race, articulating emotion in a way few other things can and uniting us during horrific events. A perfect example of this plays a vital role in M.T. Anderson’s new nonfiction book Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad.
Using Dmitri Shostakovich’s life as the framework for the story, Anderson begins with his childhood in St. Petersburg during the Russian Revolution. Later, we see Shostakovich as a composer of classical music under Joseph Stalin after St. Petersburg was renamed Leningrad. But this isn’t just a biography of a composer; Anderson delves into the fears and struggles of living under Bolshevik rule to the Soviet Union’s entrance into World War II and the disastrous siege of Leningrad. Shostakovich wrote part of his 7th Symphony while in the besieged city. And as the Nazis’ attack on Soviet soil continued, that symphony became a symbol of endurance and resolve for the people of Leningrad, in particular, and the Soviet people as a whole.
Anderson blends musical theory, sociology and war history into a compelling examination of the events, philosophies and people that led to such an appalling tragedy as the Siege of Leningrad. While not an easy read in terms of content, Anderson’s writing is accessible for readers from teens to adults. His thorough research provides readers with greater context into this particular event during WWII as well as Russian and music history.
Much like the music at the heart of the story, it’s a book that stays with you after you’ve finished it, reminding us not only of the atrocities we can — and have — perpetrated on each other but also the resolve and strength we can find within ourselves to triumph over the darker side of human nature. Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony can be checked out at BCPL or heard performed by the Moscow Philharmonic Orchestra. For more information on the Siege of Leningrad and the starving orchestra who played Shostakovich’s symphony in Leningrad approximately one year after the siege began, check out Leningrad: Siege and Symphony by Brian Moynahan.
For writers, musicians or artists, Jessa Crispin (founder of bookslut.com) introduces a unique method of working through problems in your creative life: Consult the tarot. You will learn everything you need to know in her new book The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life.
Crispin begins by outlining the tarot’s murky origins as a card game and eventual transformation to a fortune-telling medium. She details her own experience with tarot readings and explains that, rather than predicting the future, the cards tell you a story about what is happening in your life. This story can differ from the story you’ve been telling yourself and help you gain a valuable perspective.
Essential for any book on the tarot is a detailed description of each of the modern deck’s 78 cards. An intimate understanding of each card is necessary to interpret your own tarot spreads. Many books merely explain how the card might be interpreted, but Crispin takes it a step further and includes a short section entitled “Recommended Materials” for each card. This short list of writings, music recordings, films, works of art (and more!) can be studied to better understand the particular nature of each card. She often compares the cards to various people or situations to make them less theoretical and more relatable — for example, The Star is “The Ziggy Stardust card,” in honor of David Bowie’s outrageous alter ego, while the Five of Coins is compared to painter Leonor Fini, who felt alienated from the Surrealists in 1930s Paris because she was a woman.
The Creative Tarot includes everything you need to get started, except the cards themselves. But Crispin talks you through choosing a deck, explain how to set up a reading and gives examples of how to interpret various spreads in reference to your own creative projects.
Northern Alaska in winter…your dream destination? Probably not, but it is the perfect setting for Rosamund Lupton’s latest thriller The Quality of Silence. A fast-paced, bone-chilling tale about a mother and daughter who trek through northern Alaska to find her missing husband that includes a wild ride in a hijacked tractor trailer to the Arctic Circle (complete with menacing stalkers), threats of hypothermia, a blizzard and fear at every turn.
What would you do if you were told your husband was killed in a fire at a remote northern Alaskan village? Would you hijack a tractor trailer to drive through Alaska’s most treacherous landscape with your 10-year-old deaf daughter? Believing her husband Matt is alive and alone in the desolate, frozen tundra, Yasmin is determined to find him despite the bitter cold, constant darkness and barely passable snow-covered roads. But her and her daughter, Ruby, must also outrun the truck keeping pace behind them, and then there are the cryptic emails from an unknown sender. Who is following them? Who is sending the emails? And why? Unrelenting fear presses down on Yasmin and Ruby not only from outside factors but from the silence they experience as well. Will they conquer their fears? Will they find Matt? Will they survive?
Grab a cozy blanket and something warm to drink, for Lupton’s description of northern Alaska will make you shiver, both from cold and fright. You will urgently read this icy page-turner to find out what happens to Matt, Yasmin and Ruby. After warming up, go to Lupton's website for photos of her recent trip to Alaska. Interesting, believe me! Still want more Lupton? Then check out her other moving and suspenseful novels, Sister and Afterwards. Both great reads!