September 11: Hidden Gems (which books haven’t been talked about as much or haven’t been marketed as strongly that you think deserve some recognition?)
1. A Kiss Before Dying by Ira Levin– Our narrator is an intelligent, good-looking young college student. He’s dating Dorothy, a wealthy young woman with a problem. She’s pregnant. If/when her dad finds out about the baby, he’ll cut her off penniless. Thereby eliminating any use she might be of to our narrator. But that’s easily solved. He can get rid of Dorothy and try to marry money again in a year or two. She’s got two sisters after all! We spend the first portion of the book seeing through the eyes of a sociopath, and the latter portion we see from the perspective of his potential victims. I’m usually pretty good at spotting an author’s tricks. About 2/3 of the way through I was sure that I knew exactly where this was going and I was totally wrong! Ira Levin is well known for some of his other books like Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives. This is his debut and it definitely teases his future ability as a storyteller.
2. Passion by IU Tarchetti– This was made into a film called Passione D’amore in 1981 and was adapted as a Tony-winning musical in 1995, but it’s still not very well known. Giorgio is a young soldier, having an affair with Clara, a slightly older, slightly married, woman. When he’s transferred to a provincial military outpost, he meets Colonel Ricci, his new commanding officer. The Colonel lives with his sick cousin Fosca. When the Colonel mentions that Fosca is an avid reader, Giorgio lends her some books. But when he meets Fosca he’s taken aback by her illness, her ugliness, and her lack of polite social skills. Still, he tries to be kind to her when their paths cross. As Fosca falls for Giorgio, she makes no effort to hide her feelings. And when she finds out about Clara she makes her opinion known. The strength of her overtures deeply unsettles Giogio who is thrown into the depths of emotions, love as well as hate, with an intensity that he’s never before experienced. I think one reason this doesn’t have mainstream popularity is that the reader doesn’t have an obvious person to root for. Giorgio is a perfectly nice guy, but he’s most comfortable on surfaces. He’s all for polite chatter and interactions. Fosca forces him beyond that, pushing him (and the reader) into uncomfortable territory. Yet that’s also the reason that it’s hard for a reader to identify with Fosca. She makes Giorgio, and us, uncomfortable.
3. Madensky Square by Eva Ibbotson– Susanna is a dressmaker in Vienna circa 1911. She watches over her neighbors and keeps a journal. We meet the people in her life. There’s Herr Egger, a fellow with a nasty habit. Nini is Susannah’s dress model, who moonlight’s as an anarchist. Then there are the Schumakers and their six daughters, Sigi the piano prodigy next door, Susannah’s lover, an aristocratic field marshall, and her friend Alice, the only person who knows that Susannah has secrets of her own… Eva Ibbotson is best known for her middle-grade fantasy and YA romance novels, which are lovely. While this has romantic elements it’s more a slice of life than her other work and seems aimed at a slightly older readership. I wish that Ibbotson wrote more for this audience.
4. Watch By Moonlight by Kate Hawks- Many of us have read Alfred Noyes’ poem “The Highwayman,” in which an innkeepers daughter “had watched for her love in the moonlight.” The poem is notable for its strong rhythm and vivid narrative. In this book, Hawks expands and retells the poem’s narrative. We meet Bess Whateley, who works in her parents’ public house, and falls in love with Jason Quick, a thief who steals to buy his father out of indentured servitude. He is now pursued by the King’s 54th Regiment. In the poem, the title character is presented as a romantic hero. He is here too, but as we learn about his character and his background we see him become more three dimensional. Is he romantic? Yes. but he’s also a criminal. He’s doing bad things for a good reason, which makes him very human and flawed. If you’re not familiar with the poem I’d suggest going into the story fresh. Hawks includes bits and pieces throughout the novel, and it’s included in its entirety at the end. I knew the poem, so the ending took on an inevitability for me as I read the book.
5. Time and Chance by Alan Brennert– One night, Richard Cochrane, an actor, flubs his lines during a production of Brigadoon. Following the performance, he learns that his mother died, and he goes back to his New Hampshire town. Going home has made him reflective. He thinks about the decisions he made, and what he gave up to pursue his acting career. Thirteen years ago, Richard broke up with his girlfriend and left town in pursuit of his dreams. But now that he’s back, Richard encounters the man he might have been: the Richard who put aside his dreams of an acting career, got a steady job at an insurance company, married his girlfriend and had a family. Both Richards are unhappy and on some level both regret the choices that brought them to this point. So they decide to switch places so each can see if he’s happier if he’d decided differently. Yes, this is a fantasy, in which a man meets a parallel version of himself, but I think most people can relate to in some way. We all have decision points in our lives that leave us wondering “what might have been” if we’d chosen a different path.
6. The Ear, The Eye and the Arm by Nancy Farmer– Zimbabwe, 2174. General Amadeus Marsika’s three children disappear from their yard one day. They quickly learn that their world is one of contrasts. Wealthy people, like their family, live in vast estates staffed by robots. The poor live in a neighborhood called The Cow’s Guts where they search for plastic in a toxic waste dump. Here, the Marsika children are taken, prisoner. They escape only to encounter new dangers. Meanwhile, they are pursued by three very unusual detectives, knowns as The Ear, The Eye, and The Arm, who seem to always be a few moments too late to rescue the kids. This stands apart from so many other YA dystopias with its blend of high tech futuristic setting and African tribal folklore. While there are parallels to other fantasy tales, such as The Wizard of Oz, this has enough to make it unique and provocative.
7. Lionors: King Arthur’s Uncrowned Queen by Barbara Ferry Johnson- Keep in mind, I read this as a teen and loved it, I but I haven’t read it since. I don’t know how well it holds up. Lionors is mentioned in several literary sources as King Arthur’s mistress and the mother of his illegitimate son, but in this book, she takes center stage. Lionors, daughter of the Earl of Santam, meets Arthur, the ward of Sir Ecktor. They fall in love and plan to marry. But when it turns out that Arthur is actually the son of Uther Pendragon, and is now King, it becomes clear that he must marry elsewhere to secure the peace of the kingdom. However, he returns to Lionors whenever he can. She hears about what’s going on in Camelot, but her life is at her manor. The book is managing something tricky. The narrator is removed from the action for the most part, but she has stakes in it nonetheless. Aside from her visits from Arthur, and the child she has with him (here it’s a daughter), Lionors is connected to the events of Camelot via visitors for the most part and she struggles to have a purpose beyond the fulfillment of an ancient prophecy: “You will be a queen, but you will die uncrowned and unknown…”
8. Biting the Sun by Tanith Lee- In 4B there are no limits to pleasure. People are encouraged to eat, drink, have sex with multiple partners, and take drugs. If they get bored they can always commit suicide and be brought back in a new body. Really the only thing that’s forbidden is murder. When our protagonist becomes bored and jaded we follow her in and out of various bodies and circumstances, until she breaks that one rule. She’s faced with a choice. Either she undergoes personality dissolution, in which all her memory will be wiped, or she is given a single, permanent body, and banished from 4B. The unnamed protagonist opts for banishment and finds herself in a desert, where she must make a life for herself. For the first time, she discovers that some sacrifices may be worthwhile, and that being human means making choices.
9. All This and Heaven Too by Rachel Fields– This book is a fictionalization of the life of Henriette Deluzy-Desportes, the author’s great aunt by marriage. In the mid 19th century, Henriette was the most notorious woman in France. Hired as the governess to the children of the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin, she quickly came to see the problems that existed in her employer’s marriage. She and the Duc formed a close (platonic) relationship based largely on their mutual interest in the children- an interest which the Duchesse didn’t share. However, the Duchesse was aware of the closeness that existed between her husband and the governess and felt threatened. She dismissed Henriette without a letter of recommendation, and then met a tragic end. The gossip surrounding the relationship between Henriette and the Duc, as well as the circumstances surrounding Henriette’s dismissal, meant that both fell under suspicion of murder. Forced to defend herself in a trial, Henriette soon becomes hated by a nation, making life there impossible. So she flees to America where she starts anew like so many others. In 1940 this was made into a film starring Bette Davis and Charles Boyer. However, despite the film’s popularity, the literary source material has fallen by the wayside. The film focuses on the first half of the story, ending with Henriette’s departure for America. However, the book follows her to her new life. While it’s less dramatic than the first half (with accusations of adultery and murder!) it’s interesting to see what became of this remarkable woman.
10. Forever Amber by Kathleen Winsor– When this came out in 1944 it caused quite a stir, but it seems like few people know it now. If I had to compare it to another book, I’d compare it to Gone With the Wind. Amber is a very Scarlett-like heroine. But Scarlett O’Hara was born with a silver spoon, whereas Amber St. Clare is pregnant, abandoned, and penniless when we first meet her. Amber navigates the streets of 17th century London, through the Great Plague of London and the Great Fire of 1666, eventually rising to be the favorite mistress of King Charles II. But she keeps her heart true to the only man she’s ever loved; a man who she can never have. Several historical figures appear as characters in the book, such as Charles II, Nell Gwyn, Barbara Palmer, George Villiers, and more. It was banned as pornographic is fourteen states, was condemned by the Catholic Church for indecency and was banned in Australia. What’s remarkable is that there’s really nothing explicit. Yes, Amber has a number of affairs, but for the most part, they take place behind closed doors. It sold about three million copies worldwide and was made into a film in 1947, but if I mention to a historical fiction fan, chances are that they won’t know what I’m talking about.