By Kate Andersen Brower. (Harper, 309 pages, $27.99.)
Behind the scenes doesn't necessarily mean scandalous, and Kate Andersen Brower's nonfiction account of the lives and hard work of the servants at the White House is much more sweet anecdote than it is exposé. For her book "The Residence: Inside the Private World of the White House," Bower interviewed many White House maids, ushers, florists, electricians and butlers, as well as several first ladies. She came away with a wealth of stories.
While a few of the stories are juicy (naked Ronald Reagan, naked John F. Kennedy, naked — shudder — Lyndon Johnson and "Jumbo," Johnson's nickname for, well, Johnson's johnson) even the milder stories are entertaining.
Brower writes about how the staff stoically carried out their duties during the grief of the Kennedy assassination and the confusion and fear of Sept. 11, 2001. She reveals the mocha-cake indulgences of a miserable Hillary Clinton during the Lewinsky scandal and the secret trysts of Kennedy.
But mostly the book just tells stories of day-to-day life — the meals, the quirks, the relationships, the long hours, the dedication and discretion of the staff. You see an icy Nancy Reagan making near-impossible demands for a fancy dessert. When the pastry chef protested that the job would take dozens of hours and he had only two days left until the dinner, "She smiled and tilted her head to the right. 'Roland, you have two days and two nights before the dinner,' she said." He got it done.
You see all the presidents appalled when they learn that they have to pay for their own meals and entertainment — and their endless attempts to cut corners. You see Barack Obama dancing to Mary J. Blige after his first inaugural ball, and you see Amy Carter roller-skating through the East Room after the tourists have gone home. Such a fun read.
YOU WILL NEVER FIND ME
By Robert Wilson. (Europa Editions, 448 pages, $17.)
Author Robert Wilson is a master of the British detective novel. In his latest thriller, "You Will Never Find Me," Charles Boxer is an ex-spy working as a private consultant to rescue victims of kidnapping. His former wife, Mercy Danquah, has the same kind of job for London's metropolitan police — a mix of detective work, diplomacy and deception.
The story begins with the strange and calculated disappearance of their rebellious 17-year-old daughter, Amy. It forces Boxer to pursue her to the nightclubs of Madrid. The plot is so well-crafted, with surprising twists from the very beginning, that it would be a crime to give more detail.
The book is powerful because of well-drawn characters, including a Colombian drug lord and Russian gangster-spies. Ultimately, it is the tale of a fractured family facing the worst of all dangers.