This, this moment, was real, but more precious, more golden, than any fairy tale.
My mom saw Truman Capote once. She lived in New Jersey at the time and had gone into NYC for dinner. She saw him through the window of the restaurant she was eating in, walking past in his signature white suit and white hat. There was no doubt it was him. He was glam, mysterious, and popular, and always surrounded by scandal. In Melanie Benjamin’s The Swans of Fifth Avenue, we get to read a fictionalized re-telling of Capote’s golden years. The 1950s, NYC, surrounded by his socialite friends, his swans. It’s an interesting story, with a sad undercurrent, and it made me want to read more about all the real life characters in the book.
Truman Capote and Babe Paley (a popular, perfect socialite married to CBS founder William Paley) were best friends, and saw each other more as family. Babe was at the top of the social food chain in 1950s New York City, and she brought Truman along with her. Her upper-crust friends, dazzled by the gossipy, famous Truman, trusted him with their more scandalous secrets. When he started his fall from grace after publishing his self-proclaimed masterpiece In Cold Blood, he decides to use his friends’ stories as the basis for a new book. The fallout from that decision is, in some cases, truly life-ending.
This was my first Melanie Benjamin book, and I definitely want to read more. She does historical fiction so well, and I love being entertained while I’m learning something about an interesting time in history. I don’t know a lot about Capote’s history, but I want to know everything about it now! This is like a crash course in this particular society and time; after every chapter I found myself saying, “Did that really happen?” And then Googling the event to find out the entire backstory. (Which is why it took me longer than usual to finish this book!)
While this book is reminiscent of a fairy tale, it’s more like a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, with dark secrets and broken trust throughout. Capote’s world of socialite swans was gossipy and glittering, but at its heart is a sad story. Given Truman’s background and personality, he should never have been able to fit in with that high society group in NYC. He was built to be an outcast, and he absolutely knew it. He also knew enough to take advantage of every opportunity. Babe Paley, beautiful, popular, and Truman’s darling, was unhappy in her platinum cage, and tried to seek happiness in her friendship with Capote.
The Swans of Fifth Avenue is a wonderful, fictionalized telling of the scandalous and extra juicy evens surrounding Truman Capote’s rise in his socialite swan pond and his subsequent crash down to the ground. If you like historical fiction and good stories, I definitely recommend this one!
The author’s website has great resources if you want to read more about the real people who inspired this book!
Thank you to Netgalley and Sourcebooks for the review copy of this book! All opinions are my own!
All around me, I heard cries of reunion as my fellow passengers fell into the arms of their waiting relatives. But I walked on. No one was waiting for me.
Marie Benedict has quickly become one of my favorite authors over the last year. Which is great, but also a problem because she’s only written two books and I want more! I read her first book, The Other Einstein, in June as part of the Big Library Read. It was a fictional re-telling of Albert Einstein’s first wife, Mileva Maric, and the impact she had on his work and life. (And the credit she never received.) I loved it (You can check out my review of that book HERE.), so I was very excited when I found out her second book, Carnegie’s Maid, would be published in January. Readers, it did not disappoint. I loved it just as much as her first book, and I definitely recommend this historical fiction novel.
Clara Kelley has come to America on a ship from Ireland to make her way in the land of opportunity-her family needs money and jobs are scarce in 1860s Ireland. The boat ride over is rough-sickness, not enough food, not enough space, and many people didn’t survive the trip. When she hears someone calling her name (a very common Irish name) to get on a carriage to Pittsburg, Clara jumps at the chance. The only problem is that she isn’t the Clara Kelley the driver was waiting for-that Clara most likely never made it all the way to America. In Pittsburgh, she becomes a lady’s maid to Andrew Carnegie’s mother, a notoriously difficult woman. As she gets to know the family more, and very much fakes it until she makes it in an unknown environment, she develops a close relationship with Andrew. He teaches her about business, and she helps him with his business. The Civil War is in the background and while not a focus, it provides some interesting side stories. But when her identity is revealed, she has to make a decision whether to stay or go, and to fight for what is right for her own life.
Clara is a completely fictional character, but represents the countless number of immigrants who could have influenced the upper classes as America was still being formed. Benedict was inspired to begin research for this novel when she came across Carnegie’s letter to himself pledging to use his wealth to help less privileged citizens gain success through knowledge. She imagined why he would have written that, and Clara was born. As with Einstein, this book made me want to research the history behind it. This is a particularly interesting story because Carnegie, one of the wealthiest people in American history, came to American as a poor Scottish immigrant. He had drive, but he also had help along the way, and the dichotomy between him and Clara is extremely interesting. He recognizes that Clara is in the same position he was when he first came to American, and he wants to help her, but he also wants to be sure to maintain his status.
Clara might be a fictional character, but strong women in history are not, and there are so many stories that we will never know because of men taking the credit. Carnegie’s Maid is Benedict’s excellent attempt at giving a voice to some of those strong female influencers throughout history, especially during a time when the infrastructure of the United States was newly forming. And to be very plain, it was just a really good story that sucked me in within the first few chapters. Benedict writes fully formed, interesting characters, and I truly hope she continues writing these books and giving a voice to women in history, fictional or not.
“Because while houses burned down regularly, and people died all the time, I had never imagined that Simon could meet his end like that. You could not extinguish my husband in mere flames. It simply wasn’t possible.”
I read Cocoa Beach with the Salt Water Reads book club in July. I had never read any of Beatriz Williams’ books before, and I was really excited to start Cocoa Beach. It’s a little bit historical fiction, a little bit literary fiction, and a lot of mystery. I really enjoyed this one, with a few caveats.
Virginia Fortescue, a WWI ambulance driver, meets a dashing English surgeon on the battlefield in 1917. (Quite literally on the battlefield, surrounded by dead and dying men.) Despite trying as hard as she can to not fall in love with Simon Fitzwilliam, she does, and he seems to fall head over heels in love with her. They marry, and it is only after their marriage that she begins to discover he has a dark past of his own. Fast-forward five years, and Virginia learns that Simon has died in a house fire. They have been separated for the entirety of their marriage, and she and her daughter must go to Florida to settle her dead husbands’ estate. The only problem? Virginia suspects that Simon might not really be dead.
Cocoa Beach is a good combination of mystery and light literary fiction. Despite parts of the story being overwritten, Williams gets the tone just right. It took me a little longer to get into the book, but I flew through the second half because I wanted to know what was going on! She drops little hints throughout the novel about the bigger mystery at hand (Is Simon dead? Why are his brother and sister acting a bit odd around Virginia?), and that really kept me hooked into the story. I also can’t speak for the author, but I suspect she might be a fan of the fantastic 1944 film Gaslight. If you like that movie, you’ll find a lot to like about this novel. Virginia knows herself and is a strong character, but Simon’s brother and sister cause her to doubt herself to the point of devastation.
The big problem I have with this book is that it is part of a (loose) trilogy, and I didn’t know that. It is being marketed as a stand-alone novel, but certain parts of the book, and the ending, are confusing and don’t make sense if you haven’t read the other two books, which I haven’t. The other two are The Wicked City and A Certain Age, and apparently they explain a lot more about some of the characters in Cocoa Beach, and the ending of Cocoa Beach is entirely based on those books. I love when authors create stories for other characters in their books, but if a book is marketed as a stand-alone, then it really does need to stand on its own, and not require two other books as backstory just to understand the ending.
Beatriz Williams is a strong writer, and I have put her other books on my TBR list because of that. She is a great storyteller. I just wish that I had known to read those other two books before reading this one, and I would suggest you read those before Cocoa Beach as well. It will make Cocoa Beach much more enjoyable. That being said, I really do like her writing style, and I am looking forward to reading all of her other books.
Technically this is categorized as historical fiction, but the story really deals more with character relationships than the historical setting. The time in history really serves more as a backdrop than a major plot point. If you’re trying to read more historical fiction and it’s not a category you usually enjoy, I think this would be the perfect book to add to your list.
“Music does not have a race or a disposition! Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.”
Every once in awhile a book comes along and surprises me by just how much it makes me feel. All books make me feel something, good or bad, but sometimes one is so special that it presses on my heart. Do you know what I mean? That almost physical pressure that is a combination of excitement and emotion and wanting to shout your love for the book from the rooftops. (I didn’t have a heart attack, I promise.) Echo is the kind of book that I want to force everyone I know to read, but that I’m afraid to recommend in case someone doesn’t love it. In which case I guess I’d be down a friend. (Just kidding. Sort of.) This book absolutely moved me and I cannot recommend it enough.
Echo braids together the stories of three children living during the World War II era. Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California. Through different circumstances, each child comes into possession of an enchanted harmonica. Stay with me here. That is the lone element of magical realism in the story, and Pam Munoz Ryan weaves it in perfectly. This is a WWII novel, but different from others that I’ve read. Instead of focusing on the war itself, the story is centered around people who have personal struggles in addition to the war (rescuing a father, finding a family, waiting for a brother to return), and these particular kids are trying to find a way to keep music in their lives at a time when music and instruments were seen as unimportant. In Germany, only Hitler-approved composers were allowed. In America, all available money was thrown at the war effort, and music was a more of a hobby for wealthy families or the lucky ones who had instruments pre-war. Music plays a huge role in Echo, and the characters’ lives are entwined using music as well.
Echo is a beautiful, heartbreaking, and uplifting book all at once. I was in tears by the end, and was not ready to let any of the characters go. While this is stellar middle grade fiction, I don’t see how adults wouldn’t love it too, even if you don’t usually read in this category. I do think it would be better for around age 10 and up. A cursory knowledge of WWII is necessary to understand parts of the book. I listened to this on audio, and I wasn’t comfortable listening to it around my 6- and 8-year-olds because there were some difficult topics (namely Hitler) that would have been upsetting to them, and they aren’t really able to comprehend an explanation for that yet.
Echo is truly a masterpiece, and Pam Munoz Ryan is a brilliant writer. This book is one of my favorites this year, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come. Please let me know if you’ve read it so we can talk about it!
*I listened to this as an audiobook, and let me just say that the narration is the best I’ve ever heard. I mean, the BEST. Audiobooks are a recent addition to my reading life, and I loved the audio for Echo so much that I bought it (Somehow it’s only $3.95 on Audible!) and I do intend to listen to it again. There are several narrators, and the production is amazing. The audio version incorporates beautiful musical elements and performances that add another layer that only reading the book cannot. I truly think, in this case, listening to the book and then reading it would add so much to the experience of the story. Just click on the Audiobook version in Amazon and download it directly to your Audible app, or get it through your library on Overdrive!
Echo on Audible
“I understand now that history only moves forward in a straight line when we learn from it. Otherwise it loops past the same mistakes over and over again.”
Dreamland Burning is marketed as YA, but if I hadn’t known that I would have assumed it was historical fiction for adults. It is a re-telling of the Tulsa race riots of 1921 (an event I’m ashamed to say I didn’t really know about), but at its heart it is a story about two teenagers finding out who they really are, and how they try to make sense of injustice in the world.
The story is told in alternating chapters between present-day 17-year-old Rowan Chase and 17-year-old Will Tillman in 1921. When Rowan discovers a skeleton under the floorboards of her family’s guest house, she takes matters into her own hands to find out who the skeleton was and how he or she died. What she discovers makes her question who she is and how far race relations have really come in the last hundred years. Will, a teenager in racially-divided Tulsa in 1921, finds himself in the middle of a race war that he doesn’t necessarily want to be in. He must decide not only how to react to a contentious situation, but how his actions will influence the kind of person he is now and in the future.
I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, brought it with me everywhere until I finished it, loved it. Jennifer Latham researched the race riots so well and crafted a compelling story around them that I think anyone would consider a page-turner. The main characters were well-written and I felt like I really knew them. The story itself questioned race relations of the past and present, and made important observations about how far we really haven’t come without blatantly seeming like an author’s agenda. This is definitely fiction, but there’s a lesson to be learned as well. I was fascinated by the events leading up to the race riots and how the fallout from that is still seen in present day. We call it history, but not everything remains in the past.
I will say that towards the end, the family lines and connections got a bit mixed up for me, but that also could have been because I stayed up way too late finishing it. I also wanted to know more about the dynamic between Will and his community. His mom was an Osage Native American, and surely that would have played some kind of role as well. Maybe it’s from having read Killers of the Flower Moon recently, but I did wonder why that aspect was overlooked.
Overall, this is an interesting, well-written, page-turner of a book that I think covers an important, forgotten part of American history. If you don’t usually read YA, please give this one a try. It is such a good story, and really shows how much we can learn from history, and how important it is to never forget the past. As Rowan says, “The dead always have stories to tell. They just need the living to listen.”