It's Oscar Season, and if you have Hollywood on the brain, it's the perfect time to dive into Kate Alcott's new novel. In A Touch of Stardust, the author of The Dressmaker turns back the clock to the 1930s and puts readers on the tension-filled set of Gone With the Wind.
We see through the eyes of Julie Crawford, a would-be screenwriter who's still somewhat starstruck by the personalities she encouters during her work at the studio's publicity offices. But when Carole Lombard—who is currently involved with Clark Gable—hires Julie as her PA, the Midwestern girl starts seeing celebrities in a whole new light. But the magic of the movies persists.
Each morning, she pulled herself from bed and joined the cleaning ladies and the plumbers and other sleepy travelers on the 5:00 a.m. bus to get to the studio early. That way, she could step onto the back lot alone and be in the old South and feel the magical world of Gone with the Wind come to life. In front of Tara, the trees that had been fashioned over telephone poles looked real, and if she hadn't known the dogwood blossoms were made of white paper, the illusion would have been complete. It just took believing. She loved watching it grow—over fifty building façades now, and two miles of streets. It didn't matter that she walked in a landscape of glued plasterboard, a place of fake structures held together by little more than Selznick's frenzied dreams. It was vividly real.
What are you reading this week?
Pablo Picasso is widely regarded as one of the most brilliant artists of the 20th century. He is also remembered as a notorious, and often cruel, lover of women. Anne Girard's Madame Picasso explores the relationship between Picasso and his beloved muse, Eva Gouel (also known as Marcelle Humbert, a name she adopted in an attempt to sound more Parisian).
After defying her provincial parents' wishes and moving to Paris, Eva Gouel is delighted when she lands a job as a seamstress at the Moulin Rouge. A naive but genuine lover of art, she is also thrilled—and baffled—when the controversial and alluring artist Pablo Picasso takes an interest in her. As her affair with Picasso evolves and she is ushered into the decadent world of elite Belle Époque Paris, Eva struggles with insecurities and self-doubt. Little is known of Gouel, the women many consider to be Picasso's truest love, but Girard revives their tumultuous relationship, as well as its tragic demise, with skill.
Eva had fallen asleep on the windowsill, but the giggles and whispers out in the corridor woke her suddenly. When she opened her eyes, she could see that the sky had cleared. It was such a lovely cerulean blue day.
"It's him, I tell you! I've seen him before! Look down below there, in the lane!"
"He's so handsome, and famous! What the devil would he want with Marcelle?"
The voices carried through the paper-thin walls between the small rooms. Eva glanced down then and saw Picasso standing outside the door of the dormitory, wearing a proper dark suit, hat and read silk necktie. He was holding a bouquet of flowers: daises, daffodils, lilies of the valley and white roses, tied with a bright yellow ribbon. The ribbon was the color of her mother's silk kimono. She was too stunned, at first, to think. Even after everything, it seemed slightly unbelievable that he might be here for her.
Eva skittered onto her feet and glanced at the mirror on the wall beside her bed. She pinched both cheeks, which were already flushed from the sudden shock of seeing him. Then she slipped on her shoes, and pulled open the door with such force that it sprang back and crashed against the wall. The giggles and whispers stopped as Eva tumbled out into the hall and past the catty girls gathered there.
What are you reading?
Exhilarated by her newfound passion for archeology, Catherine Lemay is left feeling deflated when she's assigned to a dig in the sprawling sagebrush of 1950s Montana. Here, she must ascertain if there is anything significant worth saving in the deep pit of a canyon before plans for a major dam can progress. If she finds nothing of importance, the canyon, considered sacred to the local Crow Native Americans, will be drowned. Accustomed to thrilling, richly rewarding digs in England, Catherine is less than enthused by the endless, seemingly empty landscape before her.
A sliver of gray stone pierced the rubber tread like a spike. She stood there and watched the tire empty and for the first time since the day she watched the English coast recede behind her, felt as though she might break down and cry. She fought the tears until the wave passed.
Exiles and emigrés haunt the pages of Vanessa Manko's evocative debut novel, which spans decades and continents. The story begins in 1913 Connecticut, where Russian emigré Austin has come to escape the pogroms and turmoil of his native land. After several years of hard work, he can afford to leave his cheap men's lodging house for a real boarding house, where he finds not only a room that only belongs to him, but an American woman he loves. But when the Bolshevik Revolution really takes hold in Russia, Austin finds himself under suspicion and expelled from his new home along with Julia, whom he marries at Ellis Island just before they are sent to Russia. Will he ever find his way back to the country he longs to call home?
The newspapers were calling it the Soviet Ark. The New York Times, January 1920, ran photos. A massive ship, anchored at Ellis Island on a bitter day. They stood on the peir amid the wind and ice. The sky opaque, flurries like chipped ice. The only sounds the murmur of men's conversations, seagulls crying, the moan of the boat on the day's hard air. The anchor cranking like a scream; the massive chain lifted out of the ocean, iron red with rust, calcified with sea salt, seaweed. Just moments before, he'd sat on the long benches of the waiting room, the very room he'd sat in only years prior eager to get beyond the bottled-glass windows whose light he knew was day in America—a country behind glass, the new country's light. . . . Somewhere, a man named Hoover had his name on an index card: Voronkov. Affirmed anarchist. Bail set at $10,000. Deported.
What are you reading this week?
The Visionist by Rachel Urquhart
Little, Brown • $26 • ISBN 9780316228114
On sale January 14, 2014
Rachel Urquhart's debut novel takes place in a Shaker community in the 1840s—the place where 15-year-old Polly and her younger brother flee after burning her house down to conceal the murder of her abusive father. But she finds that safety comes at something of a price in this harsh and restrictive community.
"Why must I pretend my brother is not my brother?" she asked. She no longer felt afraid of this stranger. Nothing moved her anymore, not love, not worry, not even sadness. She had become as hard and dry as a winter seed. "Mama said she had business to attend to," Polly said, not intending to speak her doubts out loud. "Perhaps. And yet, how could she have left us in a place where there can be no love?"
The girl let out a sigh. "There is love here, you will see. Brother for brother, sister for sister. But flesh bonds are forged in the fires of carnal sin. Your Ben, like you, was born of a filthy act. Here, that filth will be lifted. You shall see for yourself, if you are willing to renounce your blood ties and confess. Should you refuse, then you do not belong among us."
I'll Be Seeing You by Suzanne Hayes & Loretta Nyhan
MIRA • $15.95 • ISBN 9780778314950
published May 28, 2013
Two very different women are linked by a twist of fate—and begin a life-changing correspondance—in a heartfelt historical novel set during World War II. Funny coincidence: Like their protagonists, co-authors Suzanne Hayes and Loretta Nyhan haven't met in person, either!
As the war rolls on, Glory and Rita's letters remind us that everyday life must go on even against the background of such historic events. The two trade recipes, share stories of their family and their fears that the men they love may not return. And they wait breathlessly for one another's letters.
May 16, 1943
Two letters from you in one day! They feel so solid in my hands. That's such a nice feeling with everything so faint and weightless around me now. And the truth is, I'm beginning to wait for your letters with bated breath. They are like talismans for me. . . .
Keep strong, Rita. I'm happy to hear I'm not alone in my growing fondness to old-lady neighbors. Don't let anyone else bully you or I might just have to take a train and wave my wild little son around. "Take THAT!" I'd say.
He's been so naughty that he'd send any bigot running.
Yours in true friendship,
What are you reading this week?
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Kline
Morrow • $14.99 • ISBN 9780061950728
published April 2013
Was anyone else obsessed with Joan Lowery Nixon's Orphan Train series as a child? It surprises me that there have been so few novels published about this fascinating historical event. From the 1850s up through 1929, children from orphanages on the East Coast were shipped en masse to the Midwest, where they were taken in by strangers. These journeys would incorporate several stops, and at each, the children would be lined up and inspected by strangers. Those not chosen would reboard the train and continue to the next city, to endure that hope and humiliation again. At best, the adopted children became members of the family. At worst, they were treated as virtual slaves—abused, overworked and kept out of school.
In her fifth novel, Christina Baker Kline takes on this little-known slice of American history. Orphan Train intertwines the story of one of these children—Vivian Daly—with that of Molly, a modern young woman who is also an orphan and an outsider. As the two develop a friendship, Vivian shares her story with Molly, finding some sort of healing along the way.
"Get a good night's rest," Mrs. Scratcherd calls from the front of the car. "In the morning you will need to be at your very best. It is vital that you make a good impression. Your drowsiness might well be construed as laziness."
"What if nobody wants me?" one boy asks, and the entire car seems to hold its breath. It is the question on everyone's mind, the question none of us is sure we want the answer to.
Mrs. Scratcherd looks down at Mr. Curran as if she's been waiting for this. "If it happens that you are not chosen at the first stop, you will have several additional opportunities. I cannot think of an instance . . ." She pauses and purses her lips. "It is uncommon for a child to be with us on the return trip to New York."
What are you reading this week?
Z by Therese Anne Fowler
St. Martin’s • $25.99 • ISBN 9781250028655
Published March 26, 2013
Why are we so obsessed with the writers of the '20s and '30s? Baz Luhrmann's The Great Gatsby, Paula McLain's The Paris Wife, Woody Allen's Midnight in Paris—it seems we can't get enough of our darling drunk writers of the Jazz Age.
This is just one of the few things I chatted about with Therese Anne Fowler, author of the upcoming Zelda Fitzgerald novel, Z, for an interview for the April issue of BookPage. Fowler, who started working on Z before our Jazz Age resurgence, called it "radio waves in the zeitgeist."
If you're looking for dishy tales of crazy Zelda and drunken Scott, this isn't your book. You get some of that, certainly, but Fowler, through meticulous research, has crafted a Zelda you might not expect: She's complex, confused, ambitious, impulsive—and naive. You'll have to wait till April to hear more!
To tide you over, here's an excerpt from a contentious moment between Scott and Zelda in the early 1920s:
Scott walked in just as I was hanging up the phone.
I said, "Griffith had his secretary phone to say you just don't have what it takes for the job. Looks like you're out of luck."
He stripped off his gloves nonchalantly, then his coat, then let all of it drop to the floor behind him. His hat remained on his head. "You should choose your pronouns more carefully," he said. His voice was loose. "We are out of lucky. We're ruined, in fact."
"What are you saying? You're drunk."
"I'm drunk, and we're broke. Aren't pronouns fun?" Then he pulled his pockets inside out for effect. "I can't even buy us lunch."
"Go to the bank, then."
"No, I mean we have no money at all. Not in my pockets, not in my wallet, not in the bank. In fact, I had to borrow to pay for your coat."
"Borrow from who?"
"The Bank of Scribner, in this case, although sometimes I use the Bank of Ober."
I was confused. "Max and Harold lend you money?""Against royalties, or future earnings—it's all money I'm going to get eventually; just, eventually doesn't always arrive as quickly as I need it to."
I went to the closet, pulled the coat from its hanger, and shoved it at him. "Send it back!"
"Don't be ridiculous." He plopped down on the sofa. "You look fantastic in this coat. In fact, I think you should take off everything you're wearing and then put the coat on." His eyelids were drooping as he said this, and then they closed.
I watched him for a moment, thinking he'd fallen asleep. Then, without opening his eyes he said, "Don't hate me. I'm sorry. It's all for you."
Scott went on the wagon and finished his novel, The Beautiful and Damned, a story of a young society couple so indolent and overindulgent that they ruin themselves. His self-discipline impressed me, so much so that I was pregnant by February.
Are you looking forward to Z?
Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood
Europa Editions • $16 • ISBN 9781609450915
on sale March 2013
The debut novel from Kate Southwood is set in the 1920s Midwest, and opens just as a devastating tornado strikes a small town. As the residents of Marah, Illinois, sort through the wreckage, it becomes clear that only one family has escaped the storm's wrath. But the resulting hostility and anger focused on Paul Graves and his wife and children by their suffering neighbors may have even fiercer consequences.
Southwood's prose is vibrant and clear, and Falling to Earth's thrilling opening immediately draws in the reader with its brutal depiction of the power of nature.
Running the length of his own mutilated street, Paul tries to look straight ahead at what he's running toward. He can't make any sense of the nightmare vision, but neither can he look away. The cloud has been capricious: the houses on one side of the street have been knocked into piles of sticks, the bricks blown out of the sidewalks and trees snatched out of the ground like hanks of hair. On the other side, the houses are still standing, some shoved over sideways or twisted. Their roofs are mostly gone and the first fires have been touched off by the snapped electrical lines and cookstoves lying in the wreckage. A few of the people he passes walk naked, crazed, calling out names. An arm rests in the crotch of a tree. Paul tries again to shut out the grotesques, running toward home, running through the searing of his lungs, desperately afraid of arriving.
What are you reading this week?
The Stockholm Octavo by Karen Engelmann
Ecco • $25.99 • ISBN 9780061995347
Published October 23, 2012
If you love historical fiction with settings that are out of the common way, read on. Karen Engelmann's entertaining debut is set in 18th-century Sweden, a country at the height of its political and military power—although King Gustave III, like all monarchs of the time, is keeping a close eye on revolution-era France.
Up-and-coming young merchant Emil Larsson finds himself entangled in his country's fate after a stop at the local gaming establishment. The proprietress, Mrs. Sparrow, has had a vision that predicts his involvement in a pivotal event involving the monarch, and asks to deal his "Octavo," a divination card game she has invented. The basics are explained by Emil early in the book, as he recalls his first visit to Mrs. Sparrow's exclusive establishment:
Mrs. Sparrow held her breath and traced one line on my palm with a long slender finger. Her hands were cool and soft, and they seemed to float above and at the same time cradle mine. All I could think at the moment was that she would excel as a pickpocket, but she was not about folderol—I checked my pockets later—and her gaze was warm and calm. "Mr. Larsson, you were born to the cards, and it is here in my rooms you will play them to your best advantage. I think we have many games ahead." The warmth of that triumph traveled top to toe, and I remember lifting her hands to my lips to seal our connection with a kiss.
That night of cards began two years of exceeding good fortune at the tables, and in time led me to the Octavo—a form of divination unique to Mrs. Sparrow. It required a spread of eight cards from an old and mysterious deck distinct from any I had seen before. Unlike the vague meanderings of the market square gypsies, her exacting method was inspired by her visions and revealed eight people that would bring about the event her vision conveyed, an event that would shepherd a transformation, a rebirth for the seeker. Of course, rebirth implies a death, but that was never mentioned when the cards were laid.
What are you reading this week?
Related in BookPage: check out our review of The Stockholm Octavo and a Q&A with Karen Engelmann.