book round-ups, Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Vanderbilt-adjacent books

As I mentioned in yesterday’s BotW post, you may well come away from reading Vanderbilt wanting to know more about some of the people and situations in it. And I can help with that because this is not my first rodeo with this family or with American High Society in the Gilded age. So for today’s recommendsday, I’ve got a selection of books that tie-in in some way with some of the events or people that feature in Anderson Cooper’s book.

Lets start with the non-fiction, because that’s probably the short of the two lists. First of all is Empty Mansions by Bill Dedman and Paul Clarke Newell. I talked about this in my non-fiction Rich People problems post a couple of years ago. It’s the investigation into the life of a reclusive heiress, who wasn’t photographed for decades and who lived in a hospital for twenty years, despite owning mansions on both coasts of the US. Huguette Clark isn’t a Vanderbilt, but her family money was made at the same sort of time, she moved in the same circles and her family also had a penchant for building giant mansions. It’s mind boggling and she only died a couple of years back. Also mentioned in that 2019 post is The Unfinished Palazzo by Judith Mackerell, which features as one of its leading characters Peggy Guggenheim. Again, not a Vanderbilt, but another one of those big American families that you may well have heard of. Off the back of reading Vanderbilt, I’ve ordered myself Anne de Courcy’s The Husband Hunters, which is about the thirty year period where the British aristocracy looked across the pond to replenish their family coffers with American money by marrying American heiresses. I shall report back, but in the interim, may I suggest the tangentially related The Fishing Fleet, also by Anne de Courcy about the women sent out from Britain to India to try and snag a husband. Lastly, you can read Consuelo Vanderbilt’s own memoir – The Gitter and the Gold but I slogged through it last year, so you don’t have to. It’s a fascinating story, but she (and her ghost writer) aren’t the best at telling it and I definitely don’t suggest you read it first, because she doesn’t give you a lot of context about who the people are that she’s talking about, so you may well find yourself utterly lost or googling every few pages!

Let’s move on to fiction – and more particularly fictionalised real-lives, a corner of fiction that I really enjoy. In the later stages of the book, we see more of Anderson Cooper’s mother’s life. Gloria Vanderbilt was the subject of a notorious custody case when she was a child, but as an adult she was part of the group of women who Truman Capote called his Swans. I’ve read a couple of novels about this group – which probably means there are a stack more that I don’t know about. I read The Swans of Fifth Avenue by Melanie Benjamin back in 2016, before I knew much more about Truman Capote than you can get from the film Capote. And that fact made the reveal of how that little group blew up work really well although I was somewhat hazy about where the real life stuff ended and the fiction began! I read Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott a couple of years later – about the same group and the same events – and that was a BotW. In Swan Song you know what Truman has done quite early and you really see the consequences of his actions for the women concerned – you just need to stick with it beyond the initial few chapters which are a bit confounding until you figure out what is going on.

Downton Abbey prompted a surge of books set in the Gilded Age or featuring American heiresses, both in historical fiction and straight up historical romances. In the former category I’ve read My Last Duchess (known in the US as The American Heiress) by Daisy Godwin who is the writer behind the TV series Victoria. Cora Cash is American heiress whose marriage is going really quite badly and who is also having to navigate British High Society with very little help and a lot of people willing her to fail. I preferred The Fortune Hunter which she wrote a couple of years later and which is about Sisi, the Empress of Austria, but that doesn’t really fit this post does it? And then there’s Theresa Anne Fowler’s A Well-Behaved Woman, which is about Alva Vanderbilt and her quest to be queen of society. I found it tricky because everyone in it is really quite unlikeable – and it doesn’t have the humour that can make reading about horrible people fun, but I know that other people enjoyed it more than I did.

On the romance front, Eloisa James’s My American Duchess was one of the first to hit this trend – it came out in 2016 and I reviewed it for Novelicious back in the day. It’s got a heroine who has already jilted two fiancés and a hero who wants to marry a Proper English woman. You know where this is going, except that it’s more than just the fish-out-of-water, comedy of manners, forbidden love novel that you expect from the blurb. I haven’t reread it since, but at the time I said that it wouldn’t be a bad place to start if you want to dip your toe into the historical romance genre, and I would stand by that, because Eloisa James in this period was one of the most consistent of the romance genre. Joanna Shupe has written a couple of series set in Gilded Age New York, but my mileage with her varies a little – she tends towards more melodrama than I like and her characters tend to do abrupt about faces that annoyment. But I did quite like Baron, from the Knickerbocker Club series, which features a fake medium who needs to seduce a railroad millionaire in order to stop him from exposing her latest scheme and also Prince of Broadway from the Uptown Girls series which has a casino owner and the daughter of a family he is trying to ruin financially. More recently there’s Maya Rodale’s An Heiress to Remember (published in 2020) which sees an American heiress return to New York after her divorce to try and claim her family’s department store for herself. Only trouble is that it’s being run by the man whose heart she broke when she married a duke. It’s the third in a series – but I haven’t read the others, so I can’t speak to whether they work as well as this one did (for me at least).

And finally, there have also been a couple of murder mystery series set in and around the mansions that the Vanderbilts and their rivals built in Newport, Rhode Island. Of the ones that I’ve read, the best was Murder at Beachwood by Alyssa Maxwell, which is a historical mystery set in 1896 with a debutant heroine who is a fictional cousin of the Vanderbilts (an actual Vanderbilt connection! yay me!) who ends up trying to solve a murder after a baby is abandoned on her doorstep. It’s bit meladramatic – but that works with the time setting. It’s also the third in a series, and writing this has reminded me that I haven’t read the other two and I’m not sure enough of the Anderson Cooper book is set in Rhode Island for me to be able to use it for the state if I do the 50 states challenge again this year.

So there you are, a monster Recommendsday post with – hopefully – something for everyone. Happy reading!

Book of the Week, new releases

Book of the Week: The Christie Affair

In a frankly shocking move to anyone who knows me, this week’s pick is a book that I mentioned in my upcoming books post, and that I’ve managed to read ahead of it’s release. I am however breaking one of my rules – because I’m writing about it nine days ahead of its publication date, and I usually try and wait for books to be published before I recommend them. But as the other books that I really liked last week were Christmas-themed books, and here we are in nearly mid-January. But I have a plan for dealing with that. I promise. Anyway, to the review.

Cover of The Christie Affair

If you’ve read anything about Agatha Christie’s life, you’ll probably have come across the mysterious incident in 1926 when she disappeared for 11 days after her husband asked her for a divorce because he had fallen in love with another woman. It sparked a massive hunt for her across the UK until she was found staying at a hotel in Harrogate. The newspapers reported that she was suffering from memory loss and Christie herself doesn’t even mention the incident in her autobiography. Nina De Gramont’s debut novel reimagines what happened, told from the perspective of the fictional Nan O’Dea. Nan is the woman who Christie’s husband is leaving her for – the Goodreads blurb describes her as “a fictional character but based on someone real, which is to say there was a woman who Archie Christie was leaving Agatha for – but that is about as far as the resemblance goes. The novel jumps backwards and forwards through time – showing the reader Nan’s tough upbringing in London and her escape to Ireland during the Great War alongside the hunt for Agatha and the events at the hotel that she’s staying at in Harrogate. Why has Nan infiltrated the Christie’s world and what is it she wants?

I really enjoyed reading this – but it’s so hard to explain why without revealing too much. In fact, I’ve tried three times just to write that plot summary without giving too much away. I think it’s fair to say that this departs a long way away from the actual facts of the Christie divorce fairly quickly. But the story sucks you in so completely that you end up googling to check which bits are real and which aren’t. It’s clever and enthralling and twistier than I expected it to be. There’s also a murder mystery plot in there that’s neatly reminiscent of something Christie herself wrote. I’ve written whole posts about fictionalised real lives, and if you like that sort of thing you should try this – although bear in mind those notes above about it not being what actually happened. It’s a thriller, it’s a mystery and it’s a romance. It’s also very easy to read and evocative. I read it on the sofa snuggled under a blanket wishing I was in front of a roaring fire, but I think it would also make a great read for the commute or a sun lounger. And it wouldn’t make a bad book club pick either. Well worth a look.

My copy of The Christie Affair came from NetGalley, but you can pre-order a signed copy from Waterstones, or the usual Kindle or Kobo editions. It is a hardback release, so the Kindle prices do match that, but if you’ve still got some Christmas book money to spend…

Happy Reading!

Best of..., Recommendsday

Recommendsday: Novelised Real Lives

The latest instalment of my intermittent Recommendsday series, is a post about a trio of books that feature fictional versions of real life people. It’s a part of literature that I’ve read quite a lot of over the years – and quite enjoy. I date it back to my A-Levels when I derived a lot of enjoyment when studying the Literature of the First World War and reading Pat Barker’s Regeneration and then in spotting all the various poets popping up in all in various other pieces of fiction about the era – and then deciphering who was meant to be who in Siegfried Sasson’s Memoirs of a Fox-hunting Man.  The books in this have been read over some considerable time – and I could have held off on publishing this for ages as I have more of these on my to-read pile. But after not enjoying one of the potentials to be added the other week, I got a bit of a bee in my bonnet and wanted to get it out there.  These three fall into some of my preferred areas of reading too – Hollywood’s Golden Age and what I’m going to call the extended post first world war period…

Mr Wilder and Me by Jonathan Coe*

Cover of Mr Wilder and Me

After a chance meeting with Billy Wilder while backpacking around the US in the 1970s, Calista finds herself on a Greek Island working as a translator on the set of Wilder’s latest film. Calista is barely out of her teens, young, naive and slightly without a direction in her life. Through the course of the summer, she watches a Hollywood great who is falling out of favour in the new world of Scorseses and Spielbergs, and learns about the sadness that haunts Wilder. I love a book about Old Hollywood and I also love novels that fictionalise real people, so even the blurb for this really, really appealed to me. And it didn’t disappoint. Mr Wilder and Me is incredibly readable – even if after you finish it you realise Calista herself is not a massively well developed character and exists mostly as a way of getting you into Wilder’s world. There is not a lot of drama here – but it doesn’t need it. It’s an examination of cinema, and fame and what you do and how you cope when people think your glory days are behind you but you don’t.

Love and Ruin by Paula McLain*

Cover of Love and Ruin

I really like what McLain does with fictionalising real people. Admittedly, so far she hasn’t done one on anyone who’s life I was already massively familiar with, but I’m not sure I care. Having tackled Hadley Richardson’s relationship with Ernest Hemingway in The Paris Wife, in Love and Ruin, McLain returns to Hemingway’s life – but this time through the eyes of his third wife, legendary war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. It’s a fascinating portrait of a relationship between two incredibly strong characters, neither of whom are prepared to let go of what they want to do (although Gellhorn definitely makes more compromises than Hemingway does). I would happily read another 100 pages of What Martha Did Next – and came away from this with even more respect for her than I already had. Really, really good – and very readable.

The Age of Light by Whitney Scharer*

Cover of The Age of Light

This is the story of Lee Miller – a model-turned-photographer, who was Man Ray’s assistant and then went on to work as a photographer in her own right and one of the first female war correspondents. I liked the idea of this – but ended up feeling distinctly mixed. I didn’t like any of the characters really – but that’s not a necessity. What is a necessity is feeling like there has been some resolution or outcome at the end of it all. And I didn’t get that. I felt like a spent a lot of time in the presence of someone very damaged, but I didn’t feel like I came away understanding her any better than at the start. Or at least not on any deeper level. – just not as good as the other books that I’ve read recently that have been telling fictionalised versions of real people’s lives (or portions of them).

If you want more fiction about real people, can I point you in the way of my post about the Happy Valley Set, Swan Song and also of some of Laurie Graham’s books like The Grand Duchess of Nowhere and Gone With the Windsors, the latter of which like Mr Wilder and Me inserts a fictional person into a real situation and remains one of my favourite books of all time.

Happy Reading!

*next to a name indicates that it came to me from NetGalley, probably some time ago!

Book of the Week, historical, literary fiction, women's fiction

Book of the Week: Swan Song

A tricky choice for my book of the week this week – partly because of a reduced list this week because of exciting things like holidays with friends, but partly because I had little quibbles with everything I read.  In the end it came down to Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott’s Swan Song and The Vacationers (apt because I was on vacation!) but as I’ve recommended Emma Straub before, I thought I’d go with Swan Song instead.  And to be fair, writing this post turned out to be really quite easy in the end!

Copy of Swan Song by Kelleigh Greenberg-Jephcott

Regular readers of this blog will be well aware of my love of novels based on real events, and this one takes a look at the downfall of Truman Capote, who after years of friendship (and patronage) with a group of elite high society women, committed social suicide by using their lives as material.  He called them his Swans, and they tell the story as a sort of Greek chorus, switching between their lives, his life and the stories he told them.  Hopping backwards and forwards through time, the Swans recount the various versions of Capote’s childhood that they’ve been told, full of inconsistencies and embroideries, they tell the stories of their friendship with him and its implosion and the aftermath.

This is really good. While it is most definitely a bit of a Rich People Problems type of situation, there is proper scandal, betrayal and heartbreak on all sides here. There are a lot of novels that talk about the unhappiness of rich and privileged people, and although they can sometimes be my favourite books to read, when it doesn’t work it’s hard to muster any sympathy.  But that’s not the case here at all – the women who Truman exposes have all their unhappiness exposed to the world – all the things that they have managed to ignore or put up with to keep their status are suddenly out there in print and although Joe Public might not know who the stories are about at first, the veil disguising their identities is very thin and people work it out – fast. I still can’t make up my mind if Truman knew that what he was about to do was going to explode his life but did it because he was terrified about failing to deliver a follow up to In Cold Blood, or if he thought that the women wouldn’t mind and couldn’t believe that they would be prepared to turn their backs on him.  My main quibble was around the last quarter – which I didn’t think worked quite as well as the earlier part had done, mostly because after the swans have broken with him, using them as a narrative device didn’t work quite as well for me.

There is a big cast of characters here but I was fine, knowing a bit about the story and having read another novel based around this very same issue before.  But my other quibble was whether you’d get lost if you didn’t know anything about this set before – as I was slightly when I read The Swans of Fifth Avenue – which didn’t tell you what it was that he’d done! Swan Song does give you the details on that – which is good, and I think if you keep reading beyond any initial confusion, it will all start to slot in to place. It’s just that the first part is a little bit like Truman’s brain after he’s had a few Orange Drinks and some pills. And obviously there is Wikipedia to help too if you’re really stuck – to be honest I think you can get all you need to know from Truman’s entry and then disappear off down any rabbit holes that strike your fancy!

Last week I recommended a book of fiction so cleverly done that you can’t believe the band isn’t real and actually these two make quite a good pair and overlap in time in some patches – although you may find that hard to believe.  You’ve got Truman and his swans living in the high society world of the East Coast which still feels like a relic of an earlier era, while over on the West Coast, Daisy and the Six are living it up in the new world of rock and drugs and feel much more contemporary.  And both would make great books to read on the beach if you’re about to head off on Spring/Easter break.  And writing post this has reminded me again that I really need to finish writing that Rich People Problems books post – it’s sitting half done, waiting for an opportune time to finish it (and for me to finish reading a couple more books).  Maybe this will be the push that I need!

I’ve had this on the pile for a while – twice in fact as I managed to get a NetGalley ebook copy when I already had a paper copy via the joys of my proper job – but although it came out last summer, I’m sort of timely – as earlier this month it was named on the longlist for the Women’s Fiction prize at the moment. The paperback isn’t out until the end of June so you could preorder it (and Amazon do have that pre-order price guarantee) but the hardback isn’t a bad price on Amazon at the moment if you just can’t wait, and would expect (or hope at least!) there might be a copy in any reasonably sized bookshop – especially now it’s been longlisted for a prize, even more so if it makes the shortlist. And of course it’s on Kindle and Kobo too.

Happy Reading!

Gone with the Windsors by Laurie Graham
Authors I love, historical

Recommendsday: Gone with the Windsors

While reading Royal Flush last week, where one of Lady Georgie’s tasks is trying to keep the Prince of Wales away from Wallis Simpson, I couldn’t help but think of Gone with the Windsors – my favourite novel that features Wallis.  Then I realised that I’ve mentioned it in passing several times on here* but never actually reviewed.  So Recommendsday this week seemed the perfect time to remedy that.

A copy of Gone with the Windsors
“A wicked comedy about the Romance of the Century” is pretty spot on

Gone with the Windsors is the story of Wallis Simpson’s romance with Edward VIII as seen throught he eyes of her (fictional) best friend, Maybell Brumby.  Maybell is a recently widowed Southern Belle who comes to London to visit her sister (married to a Scottish Earl) to one up her social rivals back home just as one of their old school friends is making a stir by stepping out with the Prince of Wales.  Soon Maybell is hobnobbing with royalty as Wallis (with the help of Maybell’s money) sets London society ablaze.  Maybell and her family are carefully woven into the real story and as someone who’s read a fair bit about the Edward and Mrs Simpson and the 1930s in general, I didn’t spot any howlers.

A quote from Gone with the Windsors
How could you not love Maybell’s insider view of the Abdication Crisis?

The Wallis of Gone with the Windsors is a ruthless social climber, with an aim in mind, who doesn’t mind stepping on anybody to get there.  David is weak and easily led, thinking more of his own pleasure than of his responsibilities.  But Maybell is a total joy.  I mean you wouldn’t want to be friends with her, but she is a brilliant prism to watch the slow motion car crash that was the Abdication Crisis.  She is delightfully dim (witness her dealings with her sister Doopie) and part of the fun is watching her misunderstand what’s going on – or miss the undercurrents.  Her sister is firmly on the Royal Family’s side against Wallis, while Maybell is convinced she’s picked the winner, which makes for fraught times on the summer holiday in Scotland.

Maybell finds new ways to keep herself occupied during a summer at her sister’s Scottish estate.

GWTW was my first Laurie Graham book – I spotted it in the window of Waterstones and had to have it – and since reading it she’s been an autobuy for me and I’ve picked up a lot of her back catalogue.  I like her straight up novels too, but my favourite are the ones like this where she takes a historical event or person and puts her spin on it.  I mentioned the Importance of Being Kennedy in my Inauguration Reading post, and The Grand Duchess of Nowhere was my first review for Novelicious, but A Humble Companion (about a companion to one of George III’s daughters) and The Night in Question (about a music hall comedienne who gets caught up in the Jack the Ripper panic) are also excellent.

My copies of Gone with the Windsors
They’re both gorgeous, but I have a soft spot for the white one – as it was the first version I had.

As you can see, I have two copies of Gone with the Windsors.  The blue one is a signed copy sent to me by the author after I cried and wailed on Twitter about losing my original (white) copy** and it being out of stock everywhere, the other one is a secondhand copy I bought because the signed edition was too nice to read.  So now the pristine blue on is on the shelf with the other Laurie Graham books and the white one lives by my bed for when I need a dose of Maybell.

A quote from Gone with the Windsors
Maybell is just so much fun. Often unintentionally.

In a fabulous twist of fate, Gone with the Windsors is coming out on Kindle later this month – I’d actually already written a sentence saying that I was said it wasn’t available Kindle so now I’m very overexcited at the prospect of having Maybell to hand whenever I need a pick me up.  So, you too can preorder Gone with the Windsors on Kindle, or pick up a secondhand hardcover or a (new or secondhand) paperback copy from Amazon.  I’m hoping the preorder link for her next novel – a sequel to Future Homemakers of America out in June – appears soon as it’s been more than a year since her last new novel came out and I’ve got withdrawal symptoms.

Gosh this has turned into a long post.  But I feel very good for having told the world about my love of Maybell Brumby and her crazy view of the world.  I hope you’ve enjoyed reading it – and I hope you get0 the book.

Happy reading!

*Usually when talking about another Laurie Graham book to say that GWTW is my favourite.

** I lent it out without writing my name in the front of it and never got it back. It was a salutary lesson.