Nothing makes the Wilshire branch staff smile like the discovery of a good book. These titles are not all uplifting in content, but their engaging characters, surprising plots, and just plain good writing made our staffers eager to share them with each other, with our branch’s patrons, and with you.
Claire Roth is a painter with a dubious talent: she’s extremely adept at creating canvases that mimic the style of other artists. This ability has already landed her in hot water, when an ex-lover’s painting becomes an art world sensation, despite the fact Claire actually painted it. When Claire tries to prove she’s the real artist behind her former boyfriend’s work, she is summarily blackballed by both museums and galleries. Enter shady gallery owner Aiden Markel, who will revive Claire’s career and reputation by giving her a one-woman show, if she’s willing to paint one last forgery for him. This fast-paced thriller combines a twisty plot with a real-life crime: the 1990 unsolved theft of $500 million dollars worth of paintings from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.
The title of this British historical novel is derived from an epigraph written by Ralph Waldo Emerson: “Truth is beautiful, no doubt, but so are lies.” And lies of all kinds are at the heart of this tale, set in 1880’s London. The central character is introduced as an exotic, expatriate Chilean heiress, Maria Isabel Constanza de la Flamandiere, known as “Maribel.” At least, that’s the story that Maribel and her husband Edward Campbell Lowe, a staunchly Socialist Scottish peer and member of Parliament, would have everyone believe. But Maribel’s true name and origin are only the first of many deceptions the reader will encounter in this atmospheric novel.
Much of the book concerns Maribel’s practice of the art and science of photography, which is still in its infancy. But even in these early stages, Maribel discovers just how easy it is to manipulate images so that the statement “a picture never lies,” becomes merely an absurd joke. Among her favorite photographic subjects are the denizens of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, which spent June through October of 1887 performing in London. These performances created a completely false “history” of the American West, and made a travesty of the defeat and destruction of the Native American culture in particular. Maribel also photographs another manufactured historical event: the 1887 celebrations of Queen Victoria’s Jubilee year, during which lavish parades, banquets, carnivals, and fairs, exalting the bounty of the British Empire, were staged within a stone’s throw of some of the world’s most wretched and impoverished slums. Beautiful Lies is not a conventional, plot driven novel, but rather an examination of a society so blinded by lovely deceptions that the truth has become impossible to recognize or accept.
When her father’s Shakespearean theatre is ruined by the Great Depression, budding painter Desdemona Hart settles for a marriage of convenience with the village druggist in the small Massachusetts town of Cascade. But the outside world is about to intrude on sleepy Cascade in a big way. The town is one of two being considered for total destruction by developers building a reservoir to provide drinking water for the burgeoning city of Boston. While the townspeople band together to avoid a future underwater, Dez finds she must also stem the tide of her potentially disastrous attraction to Joseph, a fellow artist and Cascade’s only Jewish resident. Dez is a complex heroine, not always likable, but clearly a woman ahead of her time in her unflinching determination to remain an artist first and a wife second.
Australian writer David Rain was inspired to write this wide-ranging historical novel after a friend asked him a simple question at the end of a performance of Puccini’s opera, Madame Butterfly: “I wonder whatever happened to that boy?” That boy is Benjamin Franklin Pinkerton, Jr., better known as “Trouble.” Trouble is the inconvenient son of a feckless American sailor and his soon-to-be-jilted Japanese bride. Told from the point of view of Trouble’s boarding school chum, Woodley Sharpless, Rain’s novel spans the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, and World War II. As Trouble and Woodley travel from New England, to New York City, to Washington D.C., to Shanghai, to Los Alamos, and finally to Nagasaki, they become witnesses to many of the most important historical events of their era. Yet their story remains an intensely personal one of identity, friendship, loss, longing, and forbidden love.
Life is good for Emil Larsson, a man who has risen from orphaned poverty to hold the respected position of customs officer for the City of Stockholm circa 1790. Emil is happily leading a life of low-level corruption, pocketing his share of contraband, drinking, gambling, and visiting the local brothels from time to time, until his superior at the Customs office issues an ultimatum: all officers must be suitably married or lose their cushy jobs. Confirmed bachelor Emil shares his resulting dilemma with the mysterious Mrs. Sparrow, shadowy owner of Stockholm’s most lavish gambling den, and his sometime partner in various con games. Mrs. Sparrow surprises Emil by revealing a hidden talent. She can foretell the future through an elaborate tarot card reading known as the Octavo. But Emil’s Octavo holds much more than the path to his future bride. The cards tell Mrs. Sparrow that Emil’s destiny is inextricably linked to the rise, or fall, of Sweden’s aristocracy, all the way up to King Gustav III. Set against the French Revolution, and the possibility of a similar uprising in Sweden, this spellbinding book is part historical novel, part fairy tale, part fantasy, and part melodrama, and always thoroughly enchanting.
This historical novel opens on December 24,1969. After serving 17 years of a life sentence in New York’s Attica State Prison, bank robber Willie “The Actor” Sutton has been released. A combination of good behavior, poor health, and headline-grabbing notoriety, has allowed career criminal Sutton to spend Christmas Eve in a posh suite at New York City’s swanky Plaza Hotel. Footing the bill for Willie’s Christmas gift is one of The Big Apple’s daily newspapers. A reporter and a photographer have arranged a one-day exclusive with Willie, hoping to get the scoop on a mysterious death that helped earn Sutton his “lifer” status in The Big House.
Moehringer juggles fact and fiction here to get a grasp on the life of the slippery Sutton, one of the FBI’s original “Ten Most Wanted” fugitives. With the frustrated newspapermen acting as surrogates for the reader, Sutton conducts a whirlwind tour of his criminal career through Brooklyn, Manhattan, and Staten Island. As Willie’s remembrance of things past continues, it becomes more and more clear that the bank robber’s version of his story may bear only a tenuous connection to the truth. As the reporter sums it up near the end of the novel, “...Sutton lived three lives. The one he remembered, the one he told people about, and the one that really happened.” Luckily for the reader, all three of the master criminal’s “lives” are equally fascinating.