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.
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.
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!
Take one unemployed Yankee, transplant her to Mule Stop, Texas, dig up a job with an eccentric millionaire and you have all the delightful elements of Nancy Martin’s debut mystery Miss Ruffles Inherits Everything. Sunny McKillip moved to Mule Stop expecting to be an administrative assistant at a university. When the job disappears, Sunny is fortunate to land a position with the most influential matriarch in town, Honeybelle Hensley. Miss Honeybelle is president of the garden club and has the most beautiful rose garden south of the Mason-Dixon Line. Her unexpected death bestows her fortune to her dog Miss Ruffles, a Texas Cattle Cur with a Texas-sized attitude. Sunny, the housekeeper and the valet stand to inherit a million dollars each if they maintain Miss Honeybelle’s home and care for the dog for one year. Greedy relatives, university machinations, planned nuptials and garden club power plays abound. Under the watchful eye of Miss Honeybelle’s lawyer, Sunny must keep the incorrigible dog out of the rose garden while untangling the mystery of Miss Honeybelle’s demise.
Nancy Martin’s latest is no ordinary cozy. There are unexpected twists and turns as Sunny negotiates the culture of a small southern town — Texas style. Just when you think you have it all figured out, Martin throws you a curve you won’t see coming.
Nancy Martin is a winner of the Lifetime Achievement Award for mystery writing from RT Book Reviews and is the author of Foxy Roxy, Sticky Fingers and the bestselling Blackbird Sisters mysteries.