The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin
Rich New York socialites are befriended by writer Truman Capote in the 1950s. Truman is openly gay, so their husbands don’t mind having him around on their yachts and in their villas. Babe Paley, Gloria Guinness, Pamela Churchill Harriman, and Slim Keith freely confide in him; only C.Z. Guest doesn’t share her secrets. Twenty years later, Truman reveals their secrets in a fictionalized article for Esquire, with grave consequences. The author explores the lives and relationships of these glamorous women and the colorful writer, best known for his book In Cold Blood and a remarkable black and white ball. Gossipy, entertaining, yet often sad, this novel is a compelling read.
Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance by Angela Duckworth
In this engaging book, the author, a psychologist, demonstrates that the secret to success may not be intelligence or natural talent, but grit. Develop a passion, have a goal, and work hard. The author interviewed Jeff Bezos’ mother and the coaches of the Seattle Seahawks football team, estimated which cadets would succeed in their first year at West Point, and found what habits and attitudes help Spelling Bee contestants reach the finals. Learning to work and succeed at something hard, such as music lessons, sports, or ballet may make it more likely that a student will succeed in the future. For parents, she suggests that participating in an extracurricular activity (or two) for at least one year and preferably two may help them succeed in college. There is a quiz to find out how gritty you are, and assurances that you can build grit, as well as intelligence. Many interesting examples make for a good readalike for Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell and The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg.
Dinner with Edward: A Story of an Unexpected Friendship by Isabel Vincent
Isabel, an investigative reporter for the New York Post, is befriended by her colleague’s father, Edward. They both live on Roosevelt Island, in the East River. Edward was married to Paula for 69 years, and promised before her death to keep on living. Happily, he’s a gourmet cook, and Isabel starts visiting weekly for dinner and advice. Edward tells stories about his life, shares his poetry, and turns Isabel into a foodie. She has moved many times with her husband and daughter, and her marriage is unraveling. In later chapters, Edward is visibly aging, while Isabel might be falling in love again. This charming memoir reads like fiction. I only wish that it were longer and included recipes.
The Rise and Fall of D.O.D.O. by Neal Stephenson and Nicole Galland
Tristan Lyons recruits Boston linguist Melisande Stokes for a top secret government project, translating modern and ancient documents. Their research shows that magic did exist, but abruptly stopped in 1851. Mel gets absorbed into D.O.D.O. (so secretive that it’s months before she learns she works for the Department of Diachronic Operations) as the pair work with physicist Frank Oda and his wife Rebecca to build an ODEC. At first, the office memos and messages are just something to get through between Melisande’s diary and action scenes. As the pace picks up, the messages get funnier and wilder as the improbable becomes mundane, even as the acronyms pile up. The ODEC is a time travel machine that can only be operated by a witch, and the person sent through time by the witch arrives empty handed and naked. Melisande tries repeatedly to acquire a rare book to help fund their work, Tristan learns to fence, an Irish witch plots to stop the end of magic, Vikings plunder Wal-Mart, and Melisande gets stuck in Victorian London, close to the ending of magic. A complicated, mostly entertaining, and lengthy tale that blends technology, history, and fantasy, along with a good dose of humor.
Jackie’s Girl: My Life with the Kennedy Family by Kathy McKeon
In 1964, Kathy Smith leaves a miserable job to become Jackie Kennedy’s personal assistant and substitute nanny. Kathy grew up in a large family in a three room cottage in rural Ireland, sharing a coat with her sister Briege. While money was short and the children started doing chores on the farm quite young, there was also time for fun and weekend dances. Her uncle Pat’s family sent hand-me-downs and food from New York, and bought tickets for Kathy and Briege to come to America, where Irish girls could easily find work. Kathy’s interview with “Madam” was basically meeting little John and watching his dog do tricks. Generous and very kind, Jackie Kennedy was also a demanding employer, wanting Kathy to help fill the lonely evenings after young Caroline and John were asleep, and often coming up with just one more errand at the end of the day. Well trained by the previous assistant, Kathy took care of Jackie’s wardrobe, especially packing and unpacking for her many trips, and spent lots of time with the family on Cape Cod, New Jersey, and elsewhere. Still a teenager, Kathy became lifelong friends with John, and was clearly devoted to the Kennedy family, mourning along with them when Bobby died. Full of humorous anecdotes, a wonderfully readable memoir of life with the Kennedys in good times and bad.
The Mistress of Mellyn by Victoria Holt
This gothic romantic suspense novel was published in 1960, and may remind readers of both Jane Eyre and Daphne Du Maurier’s Rebecca. Martha Leigh travels to Cornwall to begin her career as governess to Alvean TreMellyn, age 7, who lost her mother Alice a year earlier. Three other governesses have stayed only a short time in Mellyn, the mansion belonging to Lord Connan TreMellyn. Martha’s room is near Alvean’s room and the schoolroom, but she isn’t meant to dine downstairs with the family, even when guests visit. The house is huge, on a cliff overlooking the sea, with another manor house on the opposite cliff, where Peter Nansellock and his sister Celestine live. Peter quite likes Martha, but Celestine is more interested in Mellyn, and in Alvean, who is quite a handful. Martha gets Alvean interested in learning to ride a pony to impress her rather distant father. The mystery of Alice’s death is clever, the mansion atmospheric, and Connan is intriguing and slightly menacing. Martha has a romantic admirer that’s not totally believable, but rather predictable. This book, while a good read, does seem dated, although gothic novels, such as Diane Setterfield’s The Thirteenth Tale, are still popular.
Magpie Murders, by Anthony Horowitz
This book has two mysteries. One is narrated by book editor Susan Ryeland, who is searching for the final chapters of the last Atticus Pund mystery after the author’s sudden death. The other puzzle is the manuscript Susan is reading, a traditional British mystery set in 1955 England that’s a tribute to Agatha Christie’s Hercules Poirot books. Very clever writing with plenty of twists and turns in the plot make for an intensifying pace, but Susan is the only really likeable character in either mystery. I don’t want to reveal much of the plot as there are so many clever puzzles for the reader to uncover. Don’t confuse this inventive book with another fine mystery also featuring a book editor, A Murder of Magpies, by Judith Flanders.