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JACKIE & ME

Romance with bite: the perfect escapism for today’s anxious times.

Bayard imagines Jack and Jackie Kennedy’s momentous courtship through the eyes of Lem Billings, the future president's lifelong best friend.

Everyone knows how things turned out—every strand of Kennedy lore has been examined repeatedly. Bayard doesn't change names or reveal new facts (and an author’s note pointedly acknowledges that he's made up a plot point concerning Lem). Instead Bayard produces an “alternative history” evincing these very public figures’ inner lives while considering how different choices might have led to different outcomes. While Lem Billings was an actual Kennedy intimate, narrator Lem is reminiscent of The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway, and his fictional reminiscences structure the novel around the triangular friendship he shares with Jack and Jackie in the years leading up to their wedding in the early 1950s. The result is a meditation on the definitions, possibilities, and failures of friendship. The real Lem survived homophobic times semicloseted. Here Lem is portrayed as a heartbreaking mix of fear, loyalty, and perception who watches as Jackie is sucked into the Kennedy maelstrom. She can’t stand Jack’s family but also can’t resist Jack, a presence as indefinable as quicksilver, calculating yet straightforward, treacherous with women yet remembered by Lem as the “finest” of men. A dedicated lothario, Jack has no interest in marriage, but his family’s political ambitions for him require a wife, and Jackie meets Kennedy prerequisites. How deeply Jack grows to care for her remains unclear, but he does not want her to marry under false pretenses and asks Lem to make sure Jackie understands what to expect. Too softhearted, Lem sidesteps the brutal facts. Almost 30 years later, facing his own sexual identity crisis, he sees how his silence failed both Kennedys. Lem’s pre-AIDS 1981 now seems almost as innocent as his 1950s. As for Jackie, she’s pure delight—beautiful of course, naïve but self-aware, her keen intellect showing small glints of the tough resilience she’ll need later on when she's become an icon.

Romance with bite: the perfect escapism for today’s anxious times.

Pub Date: June 14, 2022

ISBN: 978-1-64375-035-4

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Algonquin

Review Posted Online: Feb. 7, 2022

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2022

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THE WOMEN

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

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A young woman’s experience as a nurse in Vietnam casts a deep shadow over her life.

When we learn that the farewell party in the opening scene is for Frances “Frankie” McGrath’s older brother—“a golden boy, a wild child who could make the hardest heart soften”—who is leaving to serve in Vietnam in 1966, we feel pretty certain that poor Finley McGrath is marked for death. Still, it’s a surprise when the fateful doorbell rings less than 20 pages later. His death inspires his sister to enlist as an Army nurse, and this turn of events is just the beginning of a roller coaster of a plot that’s impressive and engrossing if at times a bit formulaic. Hannah renders the experiences of the young women who served in Vietnam in all-encompassing detail. The first half of the book, set in gore-drenched hospital wards, mildewed dorm rooms, and boozy officers’ clubs, is an exciting read, tracking the transformation of virginal, uptight Frankie into a crack surgical nurse and woman of the world. Her tensely platonic romance with a married surgeon ends when his broken, unbreathing body is airlifted out by helicopter; she throws her pent-up passion into a wild affair with a soldier who happens to be her dead brother’s best friend. In the second part of the book, after the war, Frankie seems to experience every possible bad break. A drawback of the story is that none of the secondary characters in her life are fully three-dimensional: Her dismissive, chauvinistic father and tight-lipped, pill-popping mother, her fellow nurses, and her various love interests are more plot devices than people. You’ll wish you could have gone to Vegas and placed a bet on the ending—while it’s against all the odds, you’ll see it coming from a mile away.

A dramatic, vividly detailed reconstruction of a little-known aspect of the Vietnam War.

Pub Date: Feb. 6, 2024

ISBN: 9781250178633

Page Count: 480

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2023

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Dec. 1, 2023

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THE FAMILIAR

Lush, gorgeous, precise language and propulsive plotting sweep readers into a story as intelligent as it is atmospheric.

In 16th-century Madrid, a crypto-Jew with a talent for casting spells tries to steer clear of the Inquisition.

Luzia Cotado, a scullion and an orphan, has secrets to keep: “It was a game she and her mother had played, saying one thing and thinking another, the bits and pieces of Hebrew handed down like chipped plates.” Also handed down are “refranes”—proverbs—in “not quite Spanish, just as Luzia was not quite Spanish.” When Luzia sings the refranes, they take on power. “Aboltar cazal, aboltar mazal” (“A change of scene, a change of fortune”) can mend a torn gown or turn burnt bread into a perfect loaf; “Quien no risica, no rosica” (“Whoever doesn’t laugh, doesn’t bloom”) can summon a riot of foliage in the depths of winter. The Inquisition hangs over the story like Chekhov’s famous gun on the wall. When Luzia’s employer catches her using magic, the ambitions of both mistress and servant catapult her into fame and danger. A new, even more ambitious patron instructs his supernatural servant, Guillén Santángel, to train Luzia for a magical contest. Santángel, not Luzia, is the familiar of the title; he has been tricked into trading his freedom and luck to his master’s family in exchange for something he no longer craves but can’t give up. The novel comes up against an issue common in fantasy fiction: Why don’t the characters just use their magic to solve all their problems? Bardugo has clearly given it some thought, but her solutions aren’t quite convincing, especially toward the end of the book. These small faults would be harder to forgive if she weren’t such a beautiful writer. Part fairy tale, part political thriller, part romance, the novel unfolds like a winter tree bursting into unnatural bloom in response to one of Luzia’s refranes, as she and Santángel learn about power, trust, betrayal, and love.

Lush, gorgeous, precise language and propulsive plotting sweep readers into a story as intelligent as it is atmospheric.

Pub Date: April 9, 2024

ISBN: 9781250884251

Page Count: 400

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: Feb. 3, 2024

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 1, 2024

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