Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Schedule for the Rest of the Year

This is reprinted from Justine Larbalestier’s blog because I’m too lazy to write up my own version:


Kate Elliott and I have started a Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club together. Our criteria is that each book be a bestseller, classified as women’s fiction, be published between the end of World War One and twenty years ago. So no books from before 1918 or after 1994. We also decided not to look at any books by living authors. That way if we hate a book we can truly let rip. So far we’ve discussed Jacqueline Susann’s The Valley of the Dolls here on Justine’s blog and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything here.

So that more of you can join in here’s what we’ve got planned for the rest of the year. All of these books are in print and available as ebooks except for A Many-Splendored Thing and Imitation of Life. Turns out Imitation is still in print in the US. We’ve scheduled it for September so you’ll have plenty of time to inter-library loan or find them second-hand:

May: Grace Metalious Peyton Place (1956). This book was a huge blockbuster in its day and was made into an equally popular movie. I read and loved it as a kid but have memories of finding everyone’s behaviour very odd. This one was suggested by many different people.

June: Ann Petry The Street (1946). I confess I’d never heard of this one until Kate suggested it. Ann Petry was the first African-American woman to have a book sell more than one million copies. Set in Harlem in the 1940s. I cannot wait to read this one.

July: Patricia Highsmith Price of Salt aka Carol (1952). This was the first mainstream lesbian novel to not end miserably. Highsmith wrote it under a pseudonym. It sold hundreds of thousands of copies. Highsmith is one of my favourites but this book is nothing like her other books as it doesn’t make you despair of the human condition. It’s almost cheerful.

August: Winifred Holtby South Riding (1936). Kate and many others suggested this one. I’d not heard of it.

September: Han Suyin A Many-Splendored Thing (1952). This is set in Hong Kong and China. Han’s The Mountain is Young is one of my favourite books but I’d never read her most popular book Splendored. Partly because it was made into a crappy movie, Love is a Many Splendored Thing, with an unspeakably awful song of the same title in 1955. I hate that song so much that it put me off reading the book. What can I say? Every time I read the title the song pops into my head. Like, right now. Aaaarrrgh!

Then in October we’ll be doing something slightly different. We’ll be reading two books together. They’re both about a black girl who passes as white. One was written by a black woman, Nella Larsen, and was not a bestseller. The other by a white woman, Fannie Hurst, was a huge success and made into two big Hollywood movies. (I wrote a comparison of the movies here.) Interestingly it’s much easier now to get hold of Larsen’s work than it is Hurst’s. Even though in her day Hurst had multiple bestsellers and was crazy popular. When you read the books you’ll discover why. If you wind up skimming the Hurst we won’t judge. At all.

October: Nella Larsen Passing (1929) and Fannie Hurst Imitation of Life (1933). I’ve read both of these. The Larsen is far superior on pretty much every count. But they’re both fascinating documents of their time. (Passing is available as part of the collected fiction of Nella Larsen: An Intimation of Things Distant.)

November: V. C. Andrews Flowers in the Attic (1979). This one is mostly for Kate who for some strange reason has never read it. Me, I have read it multiple times. When I was twelve I thought it was the best book ever written. *cough* Why I have even blogged about Flowers. V. C. Andrews was my Robert Heinlein. Only much better, obviously.

December: Barbara Taylor Bradford A Woman of Substance (1979). If I have read this I have no memory of it. I don’t remember the mini-series either. Again many people suggested this one.

Thanks so much for all your suggestions. They were most helpful. Keep ‘em coming. Maybe we’ll keep doing this next year. I hope so. We’d especially love if you can recommend books by women of colour that fit our bill. Even if they’re not bestsellers, like Passing, we can read them against what was selling at the time.

And, of course, do please join in. We’d love to hear what you think of these books in the coming months.

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Best of Everything (Rona Jaffe)

The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe, published in 1958 and set in the early 50s in New York City. The story centers around the lives of five young women who meet when they are all working in the publishing industry and what happens to them then.

KATE: Well. I did not enjoy The Best of Everything. Some parts worked for me, but others I ended up skimming, including a great deal of the relationship stuff because it bored me. I was most interested in the details of working in NYC in the 50s as a young woman, and in the ways the life depicted in the novel might be similar to and different from how it is today. Had there been more about that I would have gotten into the book more.

JUSTINE: I loved all the bits about the working life and would also love there to have been far more of them. But the glimpses we get are awesome and feel so very real. (Down to the casual offers of books to visitors. I remember my own amazement when I first visited publishers’ offices that they would give me so many books.) I really enjoyed Caroline Bender getting one over on Miss Farrow at Publisher’s Weekly by sending in the announcement of her promotion to Reader that Miss Farrow had deliberately left out so that it winds up being printed on its own and not being lost in the longer list of Fabian promotions. Booyah, Caroline, booyah! I loved that back then there was a job title, Reader, in publishing. (In Australia there’s a job title, Reader, at some universities but I’m not sure how many are left. It’s definitely on it’s way out. When I was little I really wanted to be a Reader. I figured you just sat around all day reading, which sounded perfect.)

On this reread I was even more taken by just how vivid the portrayal of workplace harassment is. Her bosses are absolutely vile. That scene where Barbara Lemont is letched upon by Mr Shalimar ending with him drunkenly crawling under the table to check out her legs. Aargh.

KATE: That is one of the standout scenes. Mr. Shalimar is consistently awful but in a way I found believable. I have to wonder if it is based on a real incident.

JUSTINE: Given that the whole book is closely based on Rona Jaffe’s own experiences working in publishing in NYC you’ve got to think it is. I loved that we get to see the fallout of Shalimar public sexual assault. From Barbara’s stoic endurance, knowing there’s not a whole lot she can do about it, through to the repercussions for Shalimar. Because he got so drunk and so blatantly and embarassingly assaulted her at the office Christmas party in full view of everyone he loses face and some of his authority. They laugh at him. After the Christmas party every woman he’s groped starts telling her story and Shalimar is now viewed as the pathetic loser office letch. His superior is clearly anxious that he might have to fire Shalimar.

But, of course, he isn’t fired. Given that his boss, Mr Bossart, picks out his girlfriends from his staff that was never going to happen.

KATE: I have been thinking about why I loved Valley of the Dolls while TBoE left me cold. Part of it is the train wreck quality of VotD; you cannot look away as everything inexorably falls apart. But ultimately I found VotD more emotional and gripping and vivid. Once too often in TBoE the characterization and/or narrative felt too glib, too easy, too sentimental, too pat, and even too moralizing.

JUSTINE: Valley of the Dolls is way over the top. Way, way, way over the top. It’s a technicolour novel. And I love it. But I love, too, the relative calm of TBoE. The relationship stuff in TBoE does not bore me. I cared about all the characters. Especially Caroline. And I found the way they are all steamrolled by the culture that says they must find a man, they must get married, they must not be ambitious or too into their work painful rather than boring. None of them escape. And the only “happy” endings proferred are quitting your job and getting married, or running away with a movie star to Vegas. Um. No, thanks. It was triply saddening realising that not that much has changed almost ten years later when VotD is published. Though at least TBoE offers slight hope that their lives might improve. VotD is even bleaker.

KATE: The men almost without exception are awful, dull, creepy, and/or self absorbed. Possibly Sidney Carter (is that his name? the one who marries Barbara Lemont) came across as a decent fellow but even there it seemed almost too easy for them. Mostly I found the main woman characters boring and frustrating with the exception of Caroline. They are living in NYC yet they did so little except revolve their lives around men.

JUSTINE: All the men are vile. Yes, Sidney Carter is the least vile but even so. I’m not a fan. The whole system is set up so that everything men find interesting about women when they get together is stripped away from them after they marry—especially their work—so they then lose interest in their wives and go out and have affairs with women who are mostly looking to get married. It’s a pretty stupid system dooming almost any chance of happiness.

One of the things I like so much about TBoE is the way the omniscient narrator allows us to see the absolute gulf between the men and the women. When Caroline decides not to be Eddie’s mistress we, finally, get to see his side of things and it’s clear within a few paragraphs that he has no idea who Caroline is. She’s just someone he’s made up. And he, of course, bears no relationship to the man Caroline has fallen in love with. And it is in Eddie’s weak, conservative little mind that the novel ends. Chillingly depressing.

KATE: Yes, indeed. I agree that the gulf between the men and women is well drawn, to the degree that I found it increasingly difficult to read. Perhaps in a sense it is a more depressing book than VotD in that women are really not allowed autonomy or ambition. As self destructive and narcissistic as Neely is in VotD, she does obtain success (even though we, as the readers, knows it will all come crashing down again sooner rather than later), and it is understood by everyone that she would want to be a star and that she has the qualities of a star.

JUSTINE: Though it’s interesting that even in the world of show business there’s the frequent implication that there’s something wrong with Neely and other big women stars because they’re not merely wives and mothers. It’s almost like they’re expected to fail at it because they’re stars. You cannot be both.

In TBoE the assumption is that for women marriage means no longer working. I very much enjoyed how much pleasure Caroline gets from her job, from editing:

“It has started out as a stopgap, but now it had become a way of life. It gave her a sense of value and belonging. Perhaps that, beside ability, was what made her so good at the job that could not now afford to lose her.”

It’s fascinating watching her struggle with knowing she’s not meant to enjoy work, not meant to be ambitious. That she’s supposed to put love first. But she’s seen what can happen when you do that: i.e. April and Gregg’s total self-abnegation in the face of their supposed love. Neither of them has the slightest clue about who the object of their affections actually is.

The disjunct between April’s thoughts about Dexter Key and the reality of him is, well, wow. Dexter reads like a psychopath with zero empathy and an all-encompassing obsession with his own pleasure and avoiding any possible inconvenience at all costs. Hmmm, now I can’t decide if he’s a psychopath or a narcissist. Can you be both?

KATE: I agree with your comments about Dexter’s portrayal (and Caroline’s ambition). I guess that one of the things that bothered me was that it felt almost too much like the other women’s stories were merely there to act as counters to Caroline’s–but in that sense, given that I think hers is the central story and has the most variety–it makes sense in a structural way.

JUSTINE: I love the way Jaffe describes New York City. Unlike Susann there were many elegiac descriptions of the city which rang true to this particular New Yorker. It’s eerie how her description of the midtown publishing area is pretty close to how it is now. TBoE had a much better sense of place than VotD

KATE: Yes, the descriptions of the city felt true to life, although I am not a New Yorker and have only visited a few times. They felt as if she had (as she did) really walk those streets in that fashion. In general the novel felt as if it described things she had herself witnessed and/or done in one way or another.

Having said that, it is an entirely white world. There aren’t even any Jews. I think one woman is mentioned as having “a colored maid.”

JUSTINE: It’s very very very white and very middle-class. Caroline’s mother is the one with a coloured maid. None of the other domestic staff’s race is mentioned. Caroline also imagines that her movie star will have a “sinister oriental houseboy.” That common signifier of debauchery in Hollywood movies. Ugh. In this regard TBoE reminded me of Mad Men, which reflects really poorly on Mad Men whose racial politics should be so much better given the more than fifty year gap between the two.

KATE: Given that it was set in 1952 I was surprised there were no references to World War II. It was as if the war had never happened, which jarred me.

JUSTINE: It’s mentioned: “Travel was a new experience for their generation those early years after the war” and “It was two years before the war broke out in Europe and were all very nervous and full of ideals and we used to talk each other to death.” As well as mention of characters who were in the army. The Korean War is also mentioned. I assumed that part of why Mike Rice is such a mess is because of his wartime experiences which he won’t discuss. There’s a brittle quality to many of the older male characters that I read as PTSD.

(I admit I bristle a little at this particular criticism because it’s often said of Jane Austen’s novels.)

KATE: Hmm. I’m not sure I meant that as a criticism; it was more of an observation. It seemed curious to me that it wasn’t more of a part of people’s lives but I only say that because the war was so omnipresent in my childhood even though it happened long before I was born. But I take your point about Austen.

JUSTINE: Once again, like VofD there is much mention of gay men. They are referred to mostly as “fairies” but the vilest of the young men, Dexter Key, also uses the slur “faggot”. Because he would. Unlike VofD there were no references to lesbians or the possibility that women can fall in love. If there was I sure missed it and this is my second read of TBoE and I did not skim. I’d stake my life on this novel being populated only by heterosexual women. Alas.

KATE: Yes, the inclusion of references to lesbians and women falling in love with each other was the most unexpected element of VotD on my re-read. TBoE takes a more conventional route with its five women and their ultimate outcomes.

I want to add that your descriptions of why you like the book are very convincing and well thought out. I think that tonally it just didn’t work for me. Also I simply never warmed to April, Mary Agnes, and Gregg; Mary Agnes’s tale (for me) was dull although I think entirely plausible and accurate, and the other two I found unbearable because as individuals they seemed to have no scrap of self awareness.

JUSTINE: Thank you. Yeah, if you don’t like the characters or feel much sympathy for them it would make TBoE a tough read.

I know the book always gets billed as about five girls but I definitely don’t see Mary Agnes as one of the main characters. The book is about Caroline, April, Gregg and Barbara. They’re whose point of views you get, they get many more pages than poor Mary Agnes. Mary Agnes barely gets a look in, we don’t see her courtship, we see her fiance only after they’re married and only in the one scene, her pov is far more filtered by the omniscient pov than the other four. We never really see any of her inner thoughts as we do for the other girls. She’s the token girl who does exactly what she’s supposed to do: leave work, get married, have a baby, be happy.

There’s almost, but not quite a sneer, in Caroline’s view of her. I think she’s deliberately portrayed as boring. I also think there’s a class dimension. Mary Agnes is the one clearly working class character. She’s from the Bronx. She’s also not as pretty as the other girls. Frankly, I’m not sure if the condescending portrayal of Mary Agnes is coming from Caroline or from Rona Jaffe.

April and Gregg’s self-immolations really are painful to read. As I say above they’re what happens when the myth of romantic love goes horribly wrong. Though I’m not sure if “horribly wrong” is accurate. All of these girls have been led to believe that love is everything. That marriage is everything. Their actions are actually the logical extension of that. Love really has rendered them blind not to mention delusional and self-destructive. It’s awful.

Barbara’s romance with Sidney Carter is the only successful one because they’re the only two who are actually communicating with one another and actually seeing each other. There’s no disjunct in each other’s views of each other. There’s a friendship there, not just desire. He’s still twenty years older than her and a bit creepy but in the context of this book it’s the only equal non-delusional relationship.

My rose-coloured view of the end of the novel is that Caroline has realised that it’s all hooey, that she was being delusional about Eddie and he’s really just another Dexter Key only with better social skills. Everything is about his convenience. How could he possibly think Caroline would be happy quitting her job to be his mistress and filling in her time waiting around for him by being some old dude’s secretary? Ewww!

So Caroline’s, like, whatever. I love my job. This Hollywood movie star is witty and fun. I can party with him at night and and edit genius writers during the day. Eventually I’ll have my own imprint. I might marry and have kids. I might marry and not have kids. I might even not marry and have a kid. It’s my choice. And then thirty years from now I’ll make a motza selling my tell-all autobiography.

Please join in the comments with your own observations!


For (late) May our next book will be PEYTON PLACE by Grace Metalious

Spiritwalker prints available from Julie Dillon

As many of you already know, I commissioned the fabulous (and Hugo-nominated) artist Julie Dillon to do the illustrations for the illustrated short story The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal (a coda to the Spiritwalker Trilogy). [Both print and pdf formats available.]

I also commissioned two color illustrations, both of which are now available for purchase at Julie Dillon’s INPRNT store.


Dragon thumbnail

“(a) sweep of color washed through the smoky sea . . . Night swept down. Lights like fireflies twinkled against a black sky. The sea surged, lifting like cloth raised from beneath by a hand. A bright shape emerged, smoke spilling off it in currents.

The dragon loomed over us. Its head was crested as with a filigree that reminded me of a troll’s crest, if a troll’s crest spanned half the sky. Silver eyes spun like wheels. It was not bird or lizard, not was it a fish. Most of its body remained beneath the smoke. Ripples revealed a dreadful expanse of wings as wide as fields, shimmering pale gold like ripe wheat under a harsh sun. When its mouth gape, I knew it could swallow us in one gulp.
We had come to a place we ought not to be.”




Amazons thumbnail

A gust of wind rattled the branches. A drum rhythm paced through the woods. On its beat I heard a woman’s voice call out a verse, answered by a chorus of women singing the response.

A column of soldiers marched into view, although they were almost dancing, so proud and mighty were they, and every single one a woman.

Four drummers led them while a fifth struck a bell, the drummers prancing and stepping on their way with every bit of flash and grin that any young man could muster. Their shakos were as jaunty as my own. All wore uniform jackets of dark green cloth piped with silver braid. Some wore trousers, while others preferred petticoat-less skirts tailored for striding. Most wore stout marching sandals laced along the length of calf, brown legs and black legs and white legs flashing beneath skirts tied up to the knee. Four lancers walked in the first rank, tasseled spears held high, while the rest carried rifles and swords. A banner streamed on the wind. It depicted an antlered woman drawing a bow.




You can read a little more about each illustration:

“Rising from the Sea of Smoke” at A Dribble of Ink

Amazons at the Orbit Books web site


Writing Update w/ News

As many of you know, the Spiritwalker Trilogy is complete, together with two coda stories: The Secret Journal of Beatrice Hassi Barahal (with the most awesome illustrations by Hugo-nominated artist Julie Dillon) and The Courtship (told from the point of view of Andevai). I have a few more Spiritwalker short stories in progress, including one that involves . . . babies (for those of you that like that kind of thing). Again, thanks to all of you who have so enthusiastically read Cat’s story (and to those who read it and were more lukewarm; honestly, I appreciate people reading my books however it goes.)

For my two latest projects I have been working on a YA fantasy (which will be published as a YA and not in the adult sff field) and a new epic fantasy (first of a series).


COURT OF FIVES is now the more official title of the YA fantasy formerly known as MASK (not yet fully confirmed but I think this is going to be it). It is fully revised and in production for a Summer 2015 publication date (the wheels of production grind slowly in YA publishing; they like lots of lead time to promote their titles).

This is the “Little Women meet the Count of Monte Cristo in a fantasy world loosely inspired by Greco-Roman Egypt” story that I’ve mentioned before. I wanted to write an epic fantasy that centered around girls, and telling it through the story of four sisters struck me as absolutely the way to go. In my dry, laconic way I am TOTALLY EXCITED about this book. It is definitely the fastest paced and most streamlined thing I have ever written, without losing the details and (I hope) complexity that I love.

(A younger) Hideo Muraoka would be pretty close to my head canon for the love interest:



Meanwhile, I have turned in a draft of THE BLACK WOLVES to Orbit Books. This is the first volume of an epic fantasy series and, again, I wanted to center a story around women (3 of the 5 point of view characters are women and their points of view get about 75% of the page time in this volume). Having said that, I should note that I believe all the characters are great and (I hope) varied.

Here is the current description:

He lost his honor long ago.
Captain Kellas was lauded as the king’s most faithful servant until the day he failed in his duty. Dismissed from service, his elite regiment disbanded, he left the royal palace and took up another life.
Now a battle brews within the palace that threatens to reveal deadly secrets and spill over into open war. The king needs a loyal soldier to protect him.
Can a disgraced man ever be trusted?

I know, I know, it seems like it’s all about a dude, but trust me on this. Not that I have anything against dudes! I am sure that 50% of the characters in this book are men and I love each and every one of them. Especially Captain Kellas.

THE BLACK WOLVES is also currently scheduled for 2015.


Finally, I have a forthcoming collection of short fiction (and four essays) coming out with Tachyon Publications, to be titled THE VERY BEST OF KATE ELLIOTT. (Truth in advertising: it is actually “all the short fiction Kate Elliott has written in her career so far except for a couple of Spiritwalker-related stories and with the addition of two new novelettes to sweeten the deal”).

Much more on that later.

Bestselling Women’s Fiction Book Club: The Best of Everything

Justine Larbalestier and I have started a book club to talk about bestselling women’s fiction of the 20th century. We’re both curious about the whole idea of the publishing category of “women’s fiction,” particularly how and when that label started. And, of course, we also wanted to see how well the bestselling and most long lasting of the books with that label stand up. Because usually books like Valley of the Dolls (1966) and Rona Jaffe’s The Best of Everything (1958) and Grace Metalious’s Peyton Place (1958) are considered to be, at best, middle brow. Yet now some of these books are being taught in university and they’re all back in print or have remained in print.

Last month we started with Jacqueline Susann’s Valley of the Dolls. You can find the post and the discussion on Justine’s blog.

This month we’ll be reading The Best of Everything by Rona Jaffe, which happens to have been published the year I was born! Bonus excitement!

The Best of Everything (1958) is Rona Jaffe‘s first novel. It is the story of five young employees of a New York publishing company.

PLEASE JOIN US on April 28/29 (that pesky international date line): in the evening on Monday April 28 in the USA and Tuesday April 29 in the Oz/NZ; morning April 29 in the UK/Europe.

The primary focus of the discussion will be here, on my blog, where you can check in at any time, but at the following time we’ll have an hour’s discussion on Twitter as well:

TIMES: noon Eastern Standard Oz Time/ 10 pm ET (USA)/ 7 pm PT (USA)/ 4 pm Hawaii Time