White Houses by Amy Bloom review – inside FDR’s inner circle

Real-life aide Lorena Hickok’s companionship with Eleanor Roosevelt, and the president’s womanising, are vividly captured in this timely reimagining of a political household

Amy Bloom’s new novel uses the power of gossip to get inside the Roosevelt White House through the character of Lorena Hickok, real-life aide and close companion to Eleanor Roosevelt. What she finds there is rank corruption and plenty of paradoxes, some of which resonate with the world we live in now and some of which do not.

Bloom’s novel is short, but dense and affecting. Hickok, known as “Hick”, is a smart, self-made newspaper reporter raised by a cruel and sexually abusive father in Nebraska. She is also deeply in love with Eleanor Roosevelt, who reciprocates her love when she can, though she is beset by many distractions, including her unpleasant children, her faithless husband and her predilection for always doing the moral and generous thing. Hick is ...

Top 10 books about horses – Jane Smiley picks her favourites

Childhood classics, colourful racers and memoirs of horse whisperers … the novelist and horse lover gallops through the best riding reads

When I was learning to ride horses, manuals were essentially worked-over cavalry manuals: horses were to obey, and the rider’s job was to know how to give orders. That changed in the 1960s, when trainers who had never been in the cavalry began to pay attention to horse behaviour. For my first middle-grade series, The Horses of Oak Valley Ranch, I wanted to focus on that, so I set it in the mid-60s and introduced trainers with new techniques.

My new book, Riding Lessons, is about Ellen, a girl who loves horses but has to beg to be taught how to ride. She is what was once known as “contrary”: she wants to have her way and knows how to get it (sometimes by subterfuge). I wasn’t her ...

A Generation of Sociopaths review – how Trump and other Baby Boomers ruined the world

Bruce Cannon Gibney’s study convinces Jane Smiley of the damage her own American generation has done The day before I finished reading A Generation of Sociopaths, who should pop up to prove Bruce Cannon Gibney’s point, as if he had been paid to do so, but the notorious Joe Walsh (born 1961), former congressman and Obama denigrator. In answer to talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel’s plea for merciful health insurance, using his newborn son’s heart defect as an example, Walsh tweeted: “Sorry Jimmy Kimmel: your sad story doesn’t obligate me or anyone else to pay for somebody else’s health care.” Gibney’s essential point, thus proved, is that boomers are selfish to the core, among other failings, and as a boomer myself, I feel the “you got me” pain that we all ought to feel but so few of us do. Gibney is about my daughter’s age – born ...

The Brittle Star by Davina Langdale review – impressive debut western

This British author’s debut, set during the US civil war, shines light on hitherto overlooked people and events What was happening around Los Angeles when the US civil war began? I bet you don’t know. I’ve written a book about pre-war Kansas, but I hadn’t given any thought to the LA of the time until I read Davina Langdale’s first novel. It turns out it was much more interesting than I might have suspected: more populous, more connected to the east, more culturally diverse, and, of course, plenty violent. The Brittle Star is a romance in the strict sense of the word – a young man, with a conscience and only a few flaws, sets out to right a wrong. In this case, John Evert Burn is the only child of his American father and Spanish mother. The father has died and the mother is attempting to run the ranch; ...

The Horseman by Tim Pears review – West Country pastoral

The opening volume of Pears’ historical trilogy, about a boy who loves horses, is like a long poem, with each chapter a stanzaTim Pears’ new novel, the first in a trilogy, is a slow read. Not because it lacks suspense, but because the pleasure of it lies in taking in the language and the setting – the West Country, in 1911 and 1912 – and in reading it like a long poem, with each chapter a stanza. I did worry that Parks was steering toward the much-ploughed ground of the first world war, but we don’t get there by the end of volume one. Instead, he successfully camouflages a romance in the dialect of the farmers and horsemen of the time as they make their way through the agricultural year, task by rigorous task; the natural world is sometimes antagonistic, sometimes beautiful, but always alive with detail – insects, ...

Jane Smiley: ‘I did not expect the US election to be about women’s issues – stupid me’

The right have been smearing Clinton for 25 years, but Trump is the one with the past. The Pulitzer prize-winning author on America’s race to the bottom It was evident from the beginning that the Washington DC establishment had no idea what was coming this election year. The Republicans, who had vowed to block President Obama at every turn in 2008, were so deep into their own echo chamber that they thought their strategy had been a success. The Democrats seemed just as blind – that is, blind-sided, by the popularity and strength of Bernie Sanders’ campaign. I was a Sanders supporter from the beginning, and I have to admit that it was with increasing glee that I watched the collapse of (in order of despicability, not downfall) Ted Cruz, Scott Walker, Rick Santorum, Chris Christie, Mike Huckabee, Carly Fiorina, Ben Carson and Jeb Bush. But it was with increasing dismay ...

The Mandibles: A Family, 2029-2047 by Lionel Shriver – a vibrant vision of America in decline

A super-rich Manhattan family shows its will to survive as the dollar collapses There are plenty of zippy novels about the end of the world, but Lionel Shriver has had a different idea. The devastation in The Mandibles is monetary – its effect is to destroy the US economy so completely that the impoverished hordes are fleeing to Mexico. The formerly wealthy, who had installed themselves in France, must now go home because the almighty dollar is worth nothing, replaced as the international currency by the “bancor”. Your head may be spinning, because the details of finance are more abstruse than nuclear exchange, asteroid impacts or the second coming, but as she follows her characters through sufferings and accommodations, Shriver manages to make her case – that civilisation is a delicate network and what we have, even if that is only toilet paper and socks, is precious. To begin with, ...

Sea Lovers by Valerie Martin review – tales of the unexpected

An abusive painter, a conflicted centaur and a failed novelist inhabit striking short stories that play at the boundary between wit and cruelty Valerie Martin’s work is distinguished by an alluring precision – her details, both exact and provocative, position the reader just where she or he needs to be in order to understand what Martin is getting at. In this new volume of 12 stories written between 1982 and 2014, it is evident that while Martin may have honed her technique over the years, her consistent goal has been to go deeper and see more clearly. She has succeeded – all of the stories are striking; all of them bear a resemblance to one another, like large families, where the cousins don’t necessarily get along, despite looking alike. Many of the pieces are set in New Orleans and the Louisiana bayous, where Martin grew up, in a world full of artists and ...

History v historical fiction

Historical fiction is not a secondary form – I was condescended to by a conservative historian who cannot see that he too constructs stories

In the late 90s, when I first went blond, I was driving to Santa Anita racetrack and I turned into the wrong entrance. I told a guard that I was looking for the main entrance, and he leaned forward, and said in a loud, careful voice: “OK. Go back out the way you came in, and then turn LEFT” (he demonstrated how to turn left by holding out his arms and making a left-turn gesture), “and then turn LEFT again [same gesture], and THAT’S the entrance.” Big smile. I wondered for a moment why he was treating me like an idiot, and then I realised that I was now a blonde! Since I am very tall, always wear jeans and can scowl with the best of them, being condescended ...

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal – carrot cake, coronaries and comedy

This wise and witty tale of immigrant assimilation wholeheartedly embraces a passion for food

In the early 1990s, when writing a travel guide to a region of southern Wisconsin settled in the 1840s by immigrants from villages in Europe who kept to themselves well into the mid-20th century, speaking in their native tongues and building in traditional styles, I felt I ought to put in a note of caution: do not expect to find a single item worth eating anywhere on your perambulations. According to J Ryan Stradal, those days are, thankfully, gone, and I could now repeat my journey, spoon in hand, and find plenty of adventuresome and delicious cuisine.

Stradal grew up in southern Minnesota, which means that in middle school he was probably required to read Giants in the Earth, Ole Rølvaag’s novel about Norwegian immigration to the Dakota prairies. The clue is that in Kitchens of the Great Midwest, ...