Saturday, January 9, 2016

Melanie Benjamin writes historical fiction as if she  lived it with her characters, the often famous and always interesting subjects of her books. Her latest novel, The Swans of Fifth Avenue is no exception.  

If  you are a Truman Capote devotee, you already know that the 'Swans,' are a reference to Capote's female cadre, Babe Cushing Paley, Slim Keith, Gloria Guiness, Lee Radziwell, Pam Churchill Harriman, &  C.Z. Guest among others.  If you aren't familiar with these names think world's best dressed list, style icons, People Magazine covers, trendsetters, business moguls, and lives of the rich and famous.

This novel is a tell all, re-hashing of Capote's New York fun fueled days and nights as a mini-me companion, amateur therapist, walker, and finally betrayer of the women he professed to love and adore as only a gay man could in the rollicking world of the social and cultural 1950's -1975. He rocked this same world by writing a barely disguised Esquire piece laying out collected secrets and exposing the personal lives of his swans for all to see, a form of social kamikaze that broke hearts,  (you'll never think about Babe Paley as a mere style icon after this book), ruined friendships and permanently iced the self-destructive Capote from his position as favored guest/friend/confidante to the swans.

A talented, celebrated  writer by profession, Capote charmed this group of wealthy women and became by extension, "just one of the girls," someone they could relax with, bond with, lunch with, weekend with and confide in - much to Paley's later chagrin. Truman both cany  and troubled, tortured and  sympathetic, empathetic and churlish, was a man child who fascinated the women and gathered them into a charmed circle. 

At times envious of his swans  wealthy husbands and easy lifestyles,  he even  became chummy with the often uptight, workaholic, philandering husbands who were bemused by this often cryptic, unusual person who so appealed to their wives. 

Benjamin's book is a painful, marvelous exploration of friendships that enchant and sustain us and in the end devastate us. I thought her book The Aviator's Wife about the Lindbergh's was her best, and then I read this one. 

Read this or be left behind when everyone is talking about the new book!  You'll  be captivated by the women and the web that Capote was able to weave, and your heart will 
break for all of the very real people in this novel, including Truman Capote. But you'll long remember  Babe Paley and think that a photo of this lovely woman  never gives a hint of her reality beyond the perfection and grace of clothing and personal style.

Tuesday, October 13, 2015


This was the longest book on cd to which I've listened, and I admit that the 28.75 hours were at times difficult because the pace of the reader was almost droning. Fortunately, the material on Josef Goebbels, Hitler's propaganda minister, was fascinating and kept the listener willing to put the next cd in place.

How does a mediocre scholar, from a poor family, who has a narcissistic personality ( thought he was quite a ladies man), and sees himself as a somewhat flawed, tragic hero with a physical imperfection (he had a limp caused by a physical disability), become a power within the Third Reich? How does one man become a conduit for anti-Semitism, and channel it across airwaves, newspapers and all existing forms of media in support of his Fuhrer?

Many of the answers are found in Goebbels' own diaries. Historian Peter Longerich draws upon these to show Goebbels as the Nazi henchman in support of an ideal world that only he and Hitler seemed at times to truly envision. Perhaps it was a shared delusion on the part of both men.

Well worth the listen for history buffs and for anyone who wonders "why and how," the Nazi's could have gained a foothold in Germany after WWI and how it lead to WWIII and the Holocaust. From the psychological aspects of Goebbels personality to his cruelty and inferiority complex, to his narcissism and political life as a spinner of tales for the Nazi’s, Goebbels becomes a multidimensional figure rather than just a name in a history book.

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Harry Houdini and an attractive middle aged Bostonian physician’s wife, Mina Crandon, turned medium, square off in this intriguing book that focuses on the age of spiritualism that captivated the US and England following WWI (then known as the Great War). The Witch of Lime Street, Séance, Seduction, and Houdini in the Spirit World, written by David Jaher explores the time period and the overwhelming need for many families to communicate past the veil with their loved ones in the next world – those lost to the Spanish flu epidemic or to the Great War. It was a time of table knocking, spirit trumpets, flying tables, ectoplasm and charlatans posing as mediums with a direct line to the spirit world – and Houdini was committed to defrocking the imposters. 

The friendship between Sir Arthur and the illusionist Harry Houdini (and contortionist/escape artist) is well documented in a number of other books.  This book is different because it focuses on the popular Scientific American magazine contest to find a true medium who could produce physical phenomena – such as flying objects or ectoplasm…mental mediums need not apply. If it could be proven that trickery was not involved (and a panel of judges including Houdini who had made it his life’s work to unmask frauds) then the prize was $5000.

And the chase to find a real medium was on ----and Mrs. Crandon was just learning that she indeed seemed to have psychic powers. As the book progresses the author does a good job of introducing historical figures and debunking the frauds. It is a good read and if mediumship, magic and history interest you, a very entertaining read. It is also very sad – how many people were (and still are taken in by fraudulent claims). But, I'll let you read and discover for yourself if  Mrs. Crandon was declared a winner by Scientific American after all the other claimants to the title were defrocked by Houdini.

I received an advance copy from the publisher

Thursday, August 20, 2015


Hurt and fear, are not things we want children to experience. We don't expect healthy children to be test subjects in medical experiments that can physically harm them for life.  Kim Van Alkemade's ORPHAN 8, historical novel, is based on New York City's Home for Hebrew Infants and the Hebrew Orphan Asylum, where in the mid-1900's into the 1920's children were used as test subjects for a number of medically questionable studies. Radiation exposure left some children bald for life and probably gave them serious physical side effects that may have caused other issues in later life.

The author's Great-Grandmother worked at the Asylum and raised (or at least saw) her two sons while she was employed at the facility.  Van Alkemade was fascinated by the stories. When looking through records of the Home she found reference to buying wigs for children who'd had x-rays, and thus it became the basis for her novel.

The novel is fascinating for it's writing and the journey the reader takes with Rachel, the main character from terrified child to adult. From little Rachel at home to a scared child in an overwhelming institutional environment, to an adult suddenly faced with the woman who experimented upon her body.

Now the tables have turned and Rachel is the medical professional. She has the opportunity as the nurse assigned to a case to see the physician who scarred her for life - what will Rachel do to the elderly woman now in her care? The ethics at play are almost unbearable - the psychological nuance between the two women, one elderly, quite ill and unrepentant, the other still emotionally fragile from her childhood.

It's a book that is as intriguing as it is readable. Well written and fascinating, it draws the reader into the shadows of Rachel's thirst for revenge and her opportunity for forgiveness. How she chooses, and what she chooses make for a captivating novel. I was pleased to review this novel thanks to Harper Collins for the free book!
Go to the author's website for more historical information and her bookstore appearances....

This is the ultimate beach, plane or just for fun read. A Hollywood romp chronicling the romance of a young actress and an older, superstar actor with interesting quasi-religious leanings, who sweeps her off her feet. This faux memoir sounds suspiciously familiar and will strike PEOPLE magazine readers and those who peruse the tabloids  as  familiar - a relatively recent star studded duo on an impossible mission to keep a marriage intact.

The novel shares the unique lifestyle of the celebrity circuit, where illusion is reality and romance is as scripted as a film. Getting it wrong can leave you up a creek as our heroine discovers  about her lover and his religion. It shreds any Tinseltown dreams most readers might have and exposes the lives of the haunted and photo hunted of the 24 hours news cycle.

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


Greg Iles' second book in a trilogy featuring Mayor Penn Cage of Natchez, MS
What a thrill to receive this book early to review before its release. Picking up right where the first book Natchez Burning finished, this second book immediately takes the reader to the heart of the south and long buried but not forgotten hate crimes, assassination plots, Klan activity, Mafia mayhem and a swamp that may hold a key to chilling history. 

Mayor Penn Cage of Natchez is fighting on the side of the angels, but as usual he is 
collecting soul debts by bargaining with the devil - trying to save his family, fiancee and an out of control situation that seems headed to a high body count in this book. 

With names like JFK, MLK, Oswald and Marcello and enough law enforcement including the FBI, State Police, sheriff and local yokels, this is not a book to relax with - you'll be glued to your chair and turning pages all night long. And at over 800 pages it can be a long night or two. 

But as with any Greg Iles book, it's worth its weight in reading gold. So many twists and turns that you'll want to cry and laugh and cheer - perhaps all  in the same chapter. Another great read that will leave you begging for the final installment of the trilogy. 

Saturday, May 17, 2014

The Secret of Magic

THE SECRET OF MAGIC is a great read ... Interesting historical fiction about a young, Black, female civil rights attorney Regina Robichard sent by Thurgood Marshall to investigate the apparent murder of an African-American soldier in Mississippi at the end of WWII. Her perspective ( Regina's mother is a fierce and tragic heroine who speaks out after her husband is lynched by a mob) as she travels to the Jim Crow south, meets the soldier's father, and the famous white author (think Harper Lee) who has alerted the NAACP to the unfolding miscarriage of justice. 

In a time of racially motivated killings, landed white gentry with a zeal to retain the "old South,"  and a Mississippi town hiding dark truths, Regina is drawn into a worlds she has never known, having been raised above the Mason-Dixon line. 

Getting to know her favorite children's author (whose book has been banned in the State) proves a real eye opener for the attorney. Things are never as they seem, in either the author's book nor in her plea to Thurgood Marshall. Behind every story is another tale waiting to be told about growing up and leaving childhood  behind when there was a time that black and white kids didn't see color - only a friend.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Keeper of Secrets by Julie Thomas

Keeper of Secrets

The turbulent past of WWII Germany and near present  day mid-west USA come to life under the pen of Julie Thomas. A beautifully written book about a passion for music – specifically about a Guarneri  del Gesu‘  violin and the Horowitz family who loved and cherished it and the horror visited upon the family during the Nazi regime.

It is a story that tells of fathers and sons, a gift of music, the joy of an instrument that has a unique, distinctive history as well as a distinguished, valuable and unique pedigree.  It is a story of lost and found and the boys and men who claim this valuable violin as their own.

It is also the story of young Daniel Horowitz who longs to be like his other friends and play baseball rather than spend time with his violin. A gifted musician he decides quit playing. The book centers on a maestro’s search to bring music back to Daniel’s heart and convince him to play. How this search impacts Daniel’s entire family is the central theme of the book.

A beautiful story and a compelling read.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Blood and Beauty: The Borgias by Sarah Dunant

Blood and Beauty is the Borgia's as only historical fiction writer Sarah Dunant can capture them in all their majesty and glorious infamy. From the passionate Spanish Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia also known as Pope Alexander VI,(who isn't anything like Showtime's svelte Jeremy Irons), to son Cesare - the unwilling churchman and soon to be youngest Cardinal, to the innocent  Lucrezia who will be offered as a marital prize and of course the Pope's favorite son - the hard fighting, carouser  Juan. Rome is a place of intrigue, where Cardinals cavort openly with their mistresses, the Vatican isn't just a church it is more a den of vipers where the competition is to get rich, grab power, make allies and get rid of your enemies - one way or another. 

Italy in the Renaissance was  not as it is today - it was ruled by families who oversaw great wealth in their city/states - Florence, Naples, Milan, etc. It was a constant struggle for power and dominance. And into the mix the Spanish Cardinal began his rule as Pope - pressing forward his family (illegitimate though his children were - his elevation as Pope made them acceptable marriage partners in many eyes as favors were often needed from the the Mother-Church where Alexander VI now ruled). 

I'm a big fan of Sarah Dunant's writing so I was pleased to receive this early reviewer's copy of her book. It is  interesting and tended to be much less shocking than previous books I've read about the Borgias'. It humanized them and brought life to the often  cardboard villains they have been at the hands of lesser writers. I have to admit in my mind, however, even though her physical descriptions of the Borgias' were different, in my head, the actor's from the Showtime series still managed to stick in my head. Guess I am ready for Season 3. 

I hope that Dunant plans a follow up to this book since there are so many things that she couldn't cover about them in this book. Her writing makes you want to keep reading - so here is my plea - please write a sequel! This is one of those families that cries out for their story to be told with all the historical facts woven into a story for reader's of fiction. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

SALT SUGAR FAT... A Book for Food Lovers

Saw the author Michael Moss, on Dr. Oz's TV show and then I picked up the book. Fascinating read about food companies and their work to entice our mouths (and brains) to find the "bliss" points of junk foods and basically cause us to become addicted to them. Oreos anyone?

A major simplification for a fascinating and scientific look at the industry, the marketing and the consumer science behind America's obesity epidemic. Well worth the read. Entertaining and educational! 

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Temple Of A Thousand Faces

In a peaceable jungle kingdom, a kind and gentle prince interested in the arts and  architecture is looking to a future building roads and hospitals for his people.  He is in love with his barren chief wife and besotted with his children. The fairytale Khmer Empire by the river with its main city Angkor is filled with the beauty of Angkor Wat – a temple of majesty and spiritual significance for both Hindus and Buddhists. But the quiet and beauty is about to be broken during 1177 when the Cham King invades Angkor killing the old King and forcing the prince and his beloved wife to make the jungle their base as they struggle to retake their home.

Temple of a Thousand Faces, was written by John Shors who is known for his historical fiction and for telling stories that engage both the heart and mind of the reader. This novel is no exception – one is quickly immersed in the book with the lush jungle, the sound of elephants, the fear of the Khmers’ when they are attacked, and the threat to the beauty and sanctity of the city.

But it is the characters that enthrall the reader, Prince Jayavar who too soon becomes King after a series of tragedies, his loving and fierce wife Ajadevi and their mortal enemy the invading Cham King Indravarman.  It is also the story of the power of love – between a captured Khmer beauty and her captor a favored soldier of King Indravarman. When the soldier sees the difference between the Khmer people and the Chams he begins to doubt the greed, inhumanity and terrorism of the Cham King – where his loyalty lies becomes a unique cornerstone of the book.

Another great read from John Shors and the chance to learn about Angor Wat, a now vanished civilization and what is currently present day Cambodia.