The Chosen and the Beautiful

They (whoever ‘they’ are) often say you can’t judge a book by its cover. Well, as it turns out, you can. The cover for The Chosen and the Beautiful promises a story of magic, glamour and decadence set between between the two great wars … and the book pretty much delivers.

Meet the sometimes-heroine of our story, Jordan Baker: taken from Vietnam as a child and raised by the old-money Baker clan as something of a socialite (that seems to be her actual job).

Jordan enjoys wealth, a wide circle of friends of both sexes whom she dances, drinks and sleeps with as the mood takes her. She plays golf (no wait, maybe that’s her actual job …) and occasionally dabbles in magic: Jordan has the ability to bring paper cuttings to like. She’s not very good at it – she crosses paths with other Vietnamese who’re a lot better at it. Still, she uses her ability to dig herself and her sometimes friend/sometimes lover Daisy out of situations that are not necessarily dangerous, but could have made their social standing somewhat precarious.

The turning point in Jordan’s story happens when she is sucked into the orbit of Jay Gatsby (yes, that Jay Gatsby) as he attempts to lure Daisy away from her dick of a husband, Tom …

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The Mermaid of Black Conch by Monique Roffey

I think this one definitely falls under the “rare treat” category: elegantly written in a light, poetic style that isn’t too overbearing, painstakingly researched, and carrying a sense of suspense throughout the piece that’s cleverly sustained even during the quieter moments. It’s one of those rare literary novels you’ll blast through in a couple of days, but even so, the author manages to whisk us around a good number of the social, environmental and race issues affecting the Caribbean.

And on top of this, we have the sudden appearance of an ancient mermaid who brings beauty and her curse to Black Conch.

The characters are well-drawn and believable, even the mermaid, who has to deal with the practical aspects of suddenly finding herself trapped in land (rediscovering her legs for a start). What I liked about the book is that it’s a classic journey piece: everyone starts somewhere, everyone has to grow, and everyone discovers a truth – whether they want to or not.

The only real problem I had was that the story ended rather abruptly, with one or two threads left dangling. I get that the outcomes had been explained along the way through songs, poetry and journal entries, but I still felt that the book sort of just stopped.

But since a good book is more than just the end, I can’t say it ruined my enjoyment – and this is one hell of a good book.

Rules of Civility by Amor Towles

This one’s an odd choice for me: no sorcerers, no ghosts, no guns, no starships, and if I’m honest, there wasn’t really much that would normally hold my attention … aside from the some very fine writing.

The story is set a few years before WWII. America is rediscovering its sense of prosperity following the Great Depression, and New York is crammed full of industrious rich, and the idle children of the industrious rich.

And crash-landing into this world of privileged hedonism, is our heroine and narrator, the unlikely-named Kathey Kontent (Kontent – emphasis on the ent, as in ‘reasonably happy’). Kathey takes us through her time as a wannabe ‘it’ girl, climbing New York’s society ladder aided by a vast array of equally ambitious female friends and somewhat vacuous lovers.

The author draws a world that you can almost touch. The architecture, the cars, the noise, the people … reading this book is really odd; a lot like remembering a forties movie you’ve never seen. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, and the story is beautifully told, and it gets better as Kathey becomes a wiser to the way the world works. It helps that she’s a very likeable character: smart and ambitious, with two very simple aims: a fabulous career and a rich husband.

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