Venetia Stanley was a great beauty of her day, sought after by poets and painters eager to pay homage to her good looks. Her early death in 1633 has remained a mystery over the centuries, some accusing her husband, Sir Kenelm Digby, of murder and others ascribing her demise to the toxic beauty treatments she was rumored to have used. Hermione Eyre’s brilliant debut, Viper Wine, explores the perils of achieving beauty at all costs, set against a backdrop of the political and social upheaval of 17th-century London.
Edith Pearlman has been publishing award-winning stories since the late 1970s, but became more widely known in 2012, when her story collection Binocular Vision won both the PEN/Malamud and National Book Critics Circle awards and was a finalist for numerous others. Her new collection, Honeydew, gathers tales from the last 15 years, each one a closely observed look at the ordinary graces and sorrows of everyday life.
It’s easy to forget that by the time he was 41, F. Scott Fitzgerald was washed up. His books were out of print, magazines weren’t interested in his stories and his monthly royalties were down to pocket change. In 1937, he went to Hollywood, where he struggled to make a living writing screenplays, barely staying one step ahead of his creditors. It is these lean years that Stewart O’Nan examines in his brilliant biographical novel West of Sunset.
How to Be Both, by the British writer Ali Smith, tells two interconnected stories. The first is about Georgina, known as George, a 1960s teenager outside of London grieving the death of her mother and taking her first tentative steps toward love. The other is the story of the 15th-century Italian painter Francesco del Cossa, a historical figure responsible for the remarkable frescos in the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara, Italy—and about whom very little else is known.
A Map of Betrayal, the new novel from the PEN/Faulkner-winning author Ha Jin (Waiting, Nanjing Requiem) is a haunting tale of two families and two countries that are linked together by the life of a single spy. When American-born professor of Asian Studies Lillian Shang inherits her father Gary’s journals, she uncovers details of his four-decade career as a spy for Communist China. But when history threatens to repeat itself in the next generation, Lillian must struggle with issues of loyalty and betrayal.
In December 1976, two days before the Smile Jamaica concert to promote political unity, armed gunmen walked into reggae star Bob Marley’s house at 56 Hope Road in Kingston and began shooting. Marley sustained injuries in his arm and chest; his wife, Rita, was hit as she raced to protect their children; and his manager, Don Taylor, was also injured. In Marlon James’ powerful new novel, A Brief History of Seven Killings, the attack is the centerpiece of a blistering commentary on Jamaica in the 1970s and its inextricable links both to Cold War politics and to the drug wars of the following decade.
Newcomers to Caitlin Moran’s candor and upfront feminist sensibility should prepare themselves: How to Build a Girl is an earthy, sometimes outrageous but always funny story about a 1990s teenager from an eccentric family in a Northern England council house who becomes a rock critic.
It is 1922, and England and her citizens are still recovering from the upheaval of the First World War: High unemployment, disillusioned ex-soldiers and severely strained circumstances are commonplace. Twenty-seven-year-old Frances Wray and her mother are living in South London. Both of Frances’ brothers died in the war, and her father’s recent death left the two women close to financial ruin. Even with the dismissal of servants and Frances taking over the housework and meals, the Wrays no longer have enough to live on. Their decision to take in lodgers, or “paying guests” as they genteelly refer to them, leads to an event as ultimately life-altering as the war itself.
Dan Kelly, the protagonist of Christos Tsiolkas’ latest novel, is not a likable character. He’s not likable in the novel’s first pages, when he’s a scholarship student at a posh boys’ school in Australia, and he remains unlikable at the end, when he’s a 30-something who doesn’t know what to do with his life. However, by the end of the book, we understand Dan, a little. This is why you will stay with Barracuda, why you will keep turning the pages even as you grit your teeth.
Rebecca Makkai’s The Hundred-Year House is an appealing mixture: part archival mystery, part ghost story, part historical novel, starring a house with as much personality as Manderley or Hill House. Told in reverse chronology, it unfolds as a kind of bookish scavenger hunt, uncovering clues and putting pieces of the fictional puzzle in place.