QuickLit – December 2016

Linking up to Modern Mrs. Darcy for her monthly QuickLit post, where we share “short and sweet reviews of what we’ve been reading lately”. I’ll share everything I’ve read over the previous month here at the end of each month, in the order I finished reading them. I read 21 books in December (holy crap!), which means I finished out the year strong!

Including the chapter books that I read aloud to our kiddos (but not the picture books), I read a total of 126 books in 2016. Those books added up to 38,713 pages of reading. I look forward to reading even more in 2017 and bring more great author interviews and book recommendations to this site. Happy New Year!


01-lily-and-the-octopusLily and the Octopus by Steven Rowley

Grab the tissues. We all know that stories about dogs have to end in tears, right? Well, this one is sweet and endearing and funny and memorable. Steven Rowley loves his dog, like we all love our dogs, and she is a member of the family. Lily is a sweet little wiener dog. The octopus is the tumor that grows above her eye. And this is the story of their journey together, and Steven’s battles against Lily’s octopus. You will laugh. And you’ll definitely cry.

 


02-four-seasons-in-romeFour Seasons in Rome by Anthony Doerr

This has all the makings of the books I love the very best: a year-in-the-life, travel, Europe, and Anthony Doerr’s prose. His writing is so fantastic, and the details he picks out to illustrate the story are always spot-on. This book tells the backstory of the year he spent as an Artist in Residence in Rome, while he wrote All the Light We Cannot See, another favorite of this year! I listened to it on audiobook, which was fine, but not spectacular, except for the fact that it allowed me to finish this one super quickly.


03-two-family-houseThe Two-Family House by Lynda Cohen Loigman

I ended up short-listing this as one of my favorites this year! This debut novel shares the story of the two families of brothers Abe and Mort. The family drama is so lovely. They live together in one big house on Christopher Street in New York. The tragedies and love and sacrifice and day-to-day that these families face together with their lives intertwined are all beautifully written. I enjoyed every moment.

 


04-this-is-the-story-of-a-happy-marriageThis is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett

I listened to this wonderful collection of essays (read by the author) about writing and life and love and nuns and dogs. They each are wonderful in their own ways. I cried a few times, smiled many times, and shook my head plenty. Patchett is one of my favorite writers and I thoroughly enjoyed this group of her writings in short story format, and it is what convinced me to put “read a collection of short stories” on my reading challenge list for next year.

 


05-this-is-how-it-always-isThis Is How It Always Is by Laurie Frankel

I loved this book. I loved the way it took me out of myself and my life while making me feel like it was just another version of how my life may have gone. I loved Frankel’s writing, her witty dialogue between characters, and her soul-searchingly deep treatment of a tough topic. I know it will continue to stick with me for months or maybe years. This one also ended up on my favorites of 2016 list!

 


06-so-youve-been-publicly-shamedSo You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson

Such an interesting look at the development, abolishment, and resurgence of public shaming, using real-world examples of people who have experienced internet shaming, those who have been sentenced to shameful consequences, etc. I found it so interesting that the internet gives us the power to be judge/jury/executioner for regular people, for “crimes” that they may or may not have committed, and it gives us immense power. I am so intrigued by the whole premise of this book. Jon Ronson also did a great job narrating, but I wouldn’t recommend this one on audio, since there are a few places in which he has to verbally describe photos that are pertinent to the story and are included in the book but are not, obviously, available to the audio listener.


07-magicians-elephantThe Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Honestly, let’s be real here. I love elephants. That’s why I picked up this young-adult short story when it was the Audible deal of the day. I know DiCamillo has a huge backlist of titles, so I’ll be sure to pick some of those up as well, because this story, about an elephant that is accidentally summoned by a magician, was charming and lovely. I’m sure I’ll put in on my list of books to read aloud to the kiddos one day!

 


08-how-to-talk-so-little-kids-will-listenHow to Talk so Little Kids Will Listen by Joanna Faber and Julie King

Oh, man. This might be the most empowering parenting book I’ve read about the age and stage of parenting that I (and most of my friends) am currently in! This collection first gives you the information and tools (in part one), along with myriad examples of what those tools look like in action. And then, in part two, they dive into specific situations and examples and how to use those tools to deal with tough behaviors. The authors also acknowledge that parents get ANGRY sometimes, and sometimes even yell, but it doesn’t have to lead to damaging your relationship with your child when done in the right way. In the six days it took me to read this book, I started using the tools and tips immediately. This morning, when the boys got into a bit of a scuffle, my oldest used his words to identify his feelings instead of lashing out at his younger brother. It was a breakthrough! Not only are they working for my kiddos, they are absorbing the information and it’s helping to make their relationship better! I feel like this one will go on my list of “parenting books to recommend to all the friends” from here on out.


09-underground-railroadThe Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead

Another of the books that ended up on my 2016 favorites list! Wow. Just phenomenal. And heartrending. And so beautiful. And sad. Cora, a slave on the Randall plantation, decides to escape with Caesar and makes her journey on the LITERAL Underground Railroad. (Isn’t that what we all imagined when we first learned about it in history?). This novel by Colson Whitehead draws on the true atrocities of slaves in the pre-civil war American south. Engrossing and unputdownable.


10-the-couple-next-doorThe Couple Next Door by Shari Lapena

This book had me dying to finish it and once I had I was so creeped out I couldn’t sleep. *shuddering goosebumps*
Anne and Marco are a sweet young couple with a 6-month-old baby that disappears when they are next door at a party. The whole thing is just horrifying. and as details are revealed and the case comes together, it pulls you deeper into the story. Really well done.

 


11-the-outsidersThe Outsiders by S.E. Hinton

This is a classic story about greasers and socs, rival gangs, two sides of the same town. Ponyboy is a greaser, along with his two brothers, Darry and Soda Pop. This novel reminded me quite a bit of West Side Story’s jets and sharks, but without the Romeo and Juliet-style love story as well. I’ve been told that I now need to read Rob Lowe’s memior about making the movie. I wouldn’t have picked this up if it hadn’t been for the Mom Advice Book Club!

 


12-everything-everythingEverything Everything by Nicola Yoon

I’d probably rank this as the best YA novel I read this year, although I did get to some other great ones! Madeline is sick. Sick enough to not ever get to go outside. And then handsome Olly moves in next door.
Oh my heart, I really loved this story. It was so typical teenager without being at all typical. A quick read that is sweet and funny and silly and sad and scary, just like teenagers. Can’t wait to pick up her next one, newly-released The Sun Is Also A Star.


12-one-true-lovesOne True Loves by Taylor Jenkins Reid

I would say this isn’t my typical genre, which may explain why I won’t rave about it. Although I thought the plot was intriguing and well-constructed, to me the characters (especially our protagonist Emma), fell a bit flat. Her turmoil over the choice between Jesse and Sam was a bit… meh, for me. I don’t think the fault lies with Reid’s writing, more that Emma wants everything, and, as is often the case in real life… can’t have it.

 


13-britt-marieBritt-Marie Was Here by Fredrik Backman

Very much in the vein of A Man CalledOve, it’s starting to feel like Backman can only write one type of character (the crotchety curmudgeon, male or female). Of course, this isn’t the case in My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry, but he certainly writes them well! This one is about Britt-Marie and the time immediately following her separation from her husband, Kent. She has so many idiosyncrasies, probably more than a touch of OCD, and plenty of socially-inept tendencies. But she has a place, she just needs to find it and herself in the process. I recommend reading My Grandmother before this one as it kind of sets the stage for this novel.


14-news-of-the-worldNews of the World by Paulette Jiles

One more fiction favorite from this year! I loved this beautifully written adventurous tale about Captain Kidd and Johanna as they journey south through Texas. Johanna (10 years old) was taken captive by the Kiowa tribe 4 years ago and needs to be returned to her relations. captain kidd (71 years old) is the one to do it as he travels the small towns of Texas reading from local and far-fling newspapers the news of the world. My friend Sasha from Pathologically Literate convinced me to pick this one up, and I’m so glad she did!


15-born-a-crimeBorn a Crime by Trevor Noah

So grateful for this freebie from Audible! Trevor Noah brings his trademark humor to some really tough stories about growing up during and after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Read by the author, these stories are full of wit and fun and a bit of horror. Just like The Daily Show, just like life.

I’m giving myself a pat on the back for this one because I bit the bullet and contacted his publicist about arranging an interview for this site. Of course, he is insanely busy, so the answer was no, but if I hadn’t tried, I would have always wondered! This was one of my top non-fiction picks for the year!


07-another-brooklynAnother Brooklyn by Jaqueline Woodson

Another beautifully written piece of lyric prose from Jacqueline Wilson. This one is fiction (she talks about developing her characters at the end of the book). But she uses her memories of her childhood in Brooklyn to fully develop and flesh out the setting. As such, it is lovely to read. I did LOVE Brown Girl Dreaming a bit more though, so that’s my recommendation from this author.

 


08-commonwealthCommonwealth by Ann Patchett

I love me some Ann Patchett, but this one didn’t grab me. It was beautifully written, as all of her books are, but it felt a bit disjointed and I didn’t connect well with the characters. There are so many “main characters” to keep track of (and more introduced even up to the final chapter!) that I didn’t care enough about any of them. I think it comes down to me enjoying her plot-driven novels quite a bit more, overall.

 


09-fairestFairest by Marissa Meyer

This novella that proceeds the final installment of the Lunar Chronicles is mainly to fill in the gaps for the “Lunartics” that want to know EVERYTHING about this world. It recounts Levana’s childhood and ascent to power. It was fine, but you can tell that the whole point was to answer the questions, not to give us anything substantial. with that in mind, it’s still fun to return to the world of Marissa Meyer.

 


10-miss-peregrineMiss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs

My favorite part about this book is that the inspiration came from old found photos. The story and characters are well-written, it’s just not REALLY for me. I have to say that I’m kind of confused about the intended audience for this book. It’s scary enough to mess with my head as an adult, but it’s about 15-18 year old children, so you’d imagine young adult readers. Either way, creepy in a good way, but I’m not sure I’ll pick up the sequels.

 


11-wishful-drinkingWishful Drinking by Carrie Fisher

I picked this up from the library on audio on the day Carrie Fisher died. All the copies of all of her books were sold out/backordered on Amazon, so I was glad I could snag it that way.I liked hearing Carrie Fisher read her book. She is silly and pokes plenty of fun at her major ups and downs in her life. But it also seemed like she wasn’t really invested in it. Hearing he tell her own obituary just a day after she died was very poignant.

 


 

Amp Up Your Reading in 2017

Have you ever done a reading challenge? Do you try to read a certain number of books each year? Do you just pick stuff up at random or do you need a guide to keep you moving? If so, check out the following reading challenges! A reading challenge is a great way to guide your reading through the year, or get you going again if you feel “stuck” after a book and don’t know what to read next.

I’m challenging myself for the following year based on last year’s statistics. I want to read more books, more books from the library, more books by people of color, and some short stories. With that in mind, I’m trying to fulfill the following categories for my reading next year:notes-on-bookmarks This is how these categories stacked up for me this past year:

  • Read 140 books – this year I read 123, but my reading didn’t REALLY ramp up until May, so I think this is doable
  • Read at least 50% books that are borrowed – yikes… this year only 35% of my books came from the library, friends, and galley copies, which means I spent a lot of money on books!
  • Read at least 20 books by people who aren’t white – this year I read 19
  • Read a short story collection – I have NEVER done this!
  • Read a book that was translated from its original language – Fredrik Backman gave me 3 in this category this year
  • Read 30 non-fiction – I read 26 this year
  • Read a book by an author that died before I was born – This year I read 3 from authors that passed before I was born, but two were children’s chapter books
  • Read a book under 100 pages – if I count read-alouds with the kids, this is easy, but making this happen with an “adult” book is more difficult!
  • Read a book over 500 pages – my longest this year was 11/22/63 at 849 pages
  • Read a book set in New Mexico – I didn’t pull this off this year, but did read some NM authors!
  • Read a book from an LGBTQ author – I read only two of these this year
  • Read a literary award-winner – I read a few of these this year!

If you’d like to create your own challenge, feel free to use any of these categories! If you’d like one ready-made for you, take a look at the ones below!

modern-mrs-darcyModern Mrs. Darcy: Choose Your Own Adventure Reading Challenge – You can choose to read for fun (12 books) or read for growth (12 books) or read for both (all 24 categories!)

 

momadviceMomAdvice Reading Challenge – I’m a huge fan of Amy Allen Clark and her MomAdvice book club. She came up with this fun reading challenge printable for the year. If you click through to her site, you can even see the books she has chosen for all 52 of these categories!

popsugarThe PopSugar Reading Challenge – 40 categories ranging from “a book about career advice” to “a book with a cat on the cover” and another 12 ADVANCED categories if you want to try for a book a week!

bookriotBook Riot’s Read Harder – 24 tasks and/or reading categories to “explore topics or formats or genres that you wouldn’t normally try”

challiesChallies Christian Reading Challenge This one has 4 levels: Light –> Avid –> Committed –> Obsessed. You choose how many you want to try to attempt, of course! Light includes only 13 books (one every 4 weeks), then 26 for Avid, 52 for Committed, and 104 for Obsessed readers!

better-worldBetter World Books 24 categories including “a book that’s been adapted into a movie” and a movie-watching bonus!

You can also find a master list of many other options on Girl XOXO‘s roundup of 2017 reading challenges! She has over 100 compiled!

My Favorite Books of 2016

top-2016-booksBy the end of this year, I will have read 126 books, and so many were absolutely wonderful! It was really difficult to narrow them down to my top 10 fiction and top 5 non-fiction picks. I could make a top 40 fiction and still feel like I left out some gems. But a girl’s gotta do what a girl’s gotta do! So, here we have my top 15 books from 2016, fiction first and then non-fiction.

Fiction

coverEveryone Brave is Forgiven – Chris Cleave

This beautifully-written novel is about a couple in London during World War II. It is witty and fun, and unforgettable. Cleave weaves a masterful story. His characters and setting are phenomenal and transport the reader directly to WWII. I loved this story through and through.

Be sure to check out my interview with Chris Cleave after you’ve read it. He’s such a wonderful writer and person!

02-small-great-thingsSmall Great Things – Jodi Picoult

Jodi Picoult has long been a favorite author of mine, but I’ve always considered her more of a guilty-pleasure-read. This novel changes that for the better. Small Great Things tackles black/white relations in this country in Picoult’s signature style (court case and personal drama). I devoured this one.

11-homegoingHomegoing –Yaa Gyasi

Yaa Gyasi’s debut novel follows two branches of a single family from Africa through the colonial period, slave trade, and post-segregation America. She includes one story from each generation, and it doesn’t seem like it should work, but it does! And it’s so revealing and thought-provoking. I couldn’t put it down.

underground-railroadUnderground Railroad – Colson Whitehead

Colson Whitehead reimagines the underground railroad of America as an ACTUAL railroad, just like we all did as children. His novel is hard, but so necessary. Main character Cora will stick with you long after this one has ended.

 

09-lilac-girlsLilac Girls – Martha Hall Kelly

This stunning debut novel introduces us to the “Rabbits of Ravenbruck”, healthy young women who were experimented on medically by the Nazis during WWII. I listened to it on audio, and that’s definitely the way to go. The three narrators of the audio version really bring the story to life in such a unique way.

Be sure to check out my interview with Martha Hall Kelly after you’ve read it!

18774964A Man Called Ove – Fredrik Backman

This sweet story is about Ove, a curmudgeonly old man reeling after the death of his wife. He is forced to interact (begrudgingly) with his neighbors throughout this book, and it produces some sweet moments filled with hope and joy and laughter. Backman is only 35 years old, and this book was originally written in Swedish. I feel like knowing those two things makes the entire story that much more amazing.

8 - 11-22-6311/22/63 – Stephen King

This isn’t a new book, but it was new to me this year. It’s the first 30+ hour book that I devoured on audio, and that should say something about its plot. It’s un-putdownable. None of the horror that made Stephen King famous, but all of the plot and character development that he has perfected over his decades of writing best-sellers.

news-of-the-worldNews of the World – Paulette Jiles

This is a story about an older man (Captain Kidd) that reads newspapers throughout Texas who ends up taking care of a young girl who needs to be returned to her parents after four years of being held captive by the Kiowa tribe. The road they travel is dangerous and long, and they have only each other to make it through. Beautifully-written, and absolutely wonderful plotline.

this-is-how-it-always-isThis Is How It Always Is – Laurie Frankel

This one comes out early next year, but I couldn’t not put it on this list. Laurie Frankel gives us a family of boys, the youngest of which is diagnosed with gender dysphoria. He is a girl. This family drama deftly illustrates the love of forever that comes with family as well as the trial and heartbreak of having a child that you don’t know how to parent.

two-family-houseTwo-Family House – Lynda Cohen Loigman

Loigman’s story about Mort and Abe, two brothers (and their wives Rose and Helen, and their numerous children) who live in a single home spans a full generation. It will make you laugh and cry and sigh with affection for her characters. You’ll be sucked in by family secrets and wonder if it’s a thriller or a drama.

Honorable mentions: What She Knew, Behind Closed Doors, Woman in Cabin 10, The One-In-A-Million Boy, I Let You Go, and Ready Player One.

Non fiction

11-love-warriorLove Warrior – Glennon Doyle Melton

I love Glennon’s writing in every form, but I think this one might be my favorite. The shattering of her (and my) naive notions about marriage, love, acceptance, beginning, and pain is just fantastically written. She does such a wonderful job of redefining the landscape, for women especially, in relation to God and the church as well. I found myself nodding, crying, and amen-ing throughout this book and I know it will become a regular recommendation for others, just like Carry On Warrior has done!

born-a-crimeBorn a Crime – Trevor Noah

I was so grateful for this freebie from Audible! Trevor Noah brings his trademark humor to some really tough stories about growing up during and after the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Read by the author, these stories are full of wit and fun and a bit of horror. just like the daily show, just like life.

5893865Wild Things: The Art of Nurturing Boys – Steven James and David Thomas

Thomas and James dissect boyhood perfectly into ages and stages and needs and wants and desires. I kept nodding my head and wanting to tattoo parts of this book on my arms. I broke out the highlighter and read pages aloud to my husband. Cannot wait to pass it along to fellow boy moms (as long as I get it back!)

05-when-breath-becomes-airWhen Breath Becomes Air – Paul Kalanithi

In this memoir, neurosurgery resident Dr. Paul Kalanithi is diagnosed with brain and spine cancer. Not a spoiler: it’s about his journey toward death. Paul’s writing is beautiful and poignant. He so faithfully captures both the doctor and patient sides of care. As with everyone else who reviewed this gem, the afterword by his wife left me weeping on the floor.

11 Brown Girl DreamingBrown Girl Dreaming – Jaqueline Woodson

I loved this memoir in verse novel format. I listened to it as an audiobook, read by the author. I highly recommend it in that format, especially. Like most verse novels, this isn’t a lengthy read. Due to our current national/political/social climate, this one seems especially important. Woodson has much to tell us, even in the short format. Make sure you stay tuned for the author’s note and “thankful for”s at the end.

Honorable mentions: The Fringe Hours, This Is The Story of a Happy Marriage, Big Magic, and Hillbilly Elegy.

If you’d like to see my entire year as a reader, you can click over to Goodreads, where they’ve created this fun Kaytee’s year in books graphic!

Author Interview – Mary Kubica

mary-kubica-21Hello, Mary! Welcome to the blog. I’m so thrilled to get to interview you. Your books and story are so intriguing to me. To start, I always ask for the 2-minute bio and something most people don’t know about you (your favorite drink for cold nights, the scariest thing you’ve ever done, the fact that you always sneeze in fours, etc…).

Hi there!  Thanks so much for having me. I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to speak with you, Kaytee.  I’m the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of three books, with another set to arrive this June.  I have a Bachelor of Arts degree from Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, in History and American Literature, and live outside of Chicago with my husband and two children.  I enjoy gardening, photography and caring for the animals at a local shelter.  A few little known facts about me are that I’ve been a vegetarian for about fifteen years and I’m absolutely terrified to fly in airplanes.

Excellent! To get started, I want to dive right into the fact that you’ve mentioned multiple times that you are a seat-of-your-pants writer: you don’t outline and let the characters develop themselves! I find that so fascinating, especially coming from a writer of psychological thrillers! It seems to me, as a reader, that you’d need to know where your story was going to end up in order to plant clues or misdirection throughout the novel. Do you rely on heavy revision and editing after the fact? Or are you able to write out your novels in the format that we get to read them?

I always start my novels with just a seed of an idea, and then watch it grow as I dive deeper into the manuscript.  I’m not an outliner at all, and make a concerted effort not to think too far ahead as I plot out my books.  I need to get to know my characters in order to discover how their stories will unfold on the page.  Quite often the plot of a novel will change its course on me and I’ll need to go back and make revisions to adapt to that change.  I love the spontaneity of writing my novels this way; my favorite part of the process is that moment that I figure out the big twist and get to go back into the book and leave either clues or red herrings for the reader to find.  Because my novels are often told either nonlinearly or from multiple points of view, I break them into smaller sections to write and then combine at the end.  In the case of my latest novel for example, Don’t You Cry, I wrote the entire storyline of Alex before going back to the beginning and creating Quinn’s narrative.  In the book itself their chapters unfold successively.

9780778316558_RHC_SMP.inddIn your debut novel, The Good Girl, as in your other books, the main characters are not all they seem. As you mention here, the one-dimensional characters in thrillers are pretty frustrating to you. So you’ve given us characters that are good guys (or girls) on the outside but have major flaws, or bad guys on the outside, but we are drawn to them and aren’t sure whether to start rooting for them. Since “real life” is like that, what do you think makes it hard for other suspense authors to write characters of this depth? Why do you think we see so many flat protagonists and antagonists in this genre?

I would never suggest that other suspense authors are unable to write characters of great depth.  I deeply admire the authors in my genre and think they are masters at what they do.  It’s a complicated genre in that quite often suspense novels are plot driven as opposed to character driven; readers are craving a propulsive storyline.  I try to create a balance: books that are both plot and character driven because for me, personally, I relish novels with deeply drawn characters that resonate with me.  For some readers, this works, but for others they find my books more of a slow build than other psychological thrillers.  The best thing about books?  They’re completely subjective and deeply personal.  What one reader loves another may not, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing.

Before getting The Good Girl published, you had written, sought an agent, and edited your novel for almost ten years. Yet, no one knew that you were writing a novel, except for your husband! Did you purposefully keep it a secret? Why didn’t you let the people around you know that you were writing? Would you do the same if you were to go back and do it again (with the 20/20 hindsight that lets you know you would make it big with this book)?

Yes, I purposefully kept it a secret!  For me for much of my life, I was very buttoned up about my passion for writing.  I was quite self-conscious of it, for one.  I had no idea if my work was any good and was too afraid to share it and find out.  There was also much less pressure when I was writing The Good Girl.  No one knew I was working on it, and therefore no one but me had their hopes up.  If I didn’t finish the novel or if it never got published, no one would feel let down but me.  If I was given the chance to go back in time and do it again, I’d do it the exact same way.

final-for-pb-pageYou mention your love for animals, and volunteering at an animal shelter, in quite a few interviews as well. Will we see this passion play out in any forthcoming books? It seems that it would be difficult to keep things that are such a big part of your life separate from your book-writing!

There are animals in nearly all of my books.  A stray cat plays a fairly prominent role in The Good Girl, the Wood family in Pretty Baby has two cats (both strays rescued as kittens from the outdoors), and my next novel, Every Last Lie (coming June 27th!) features a rescue dog named Harriet who the family adopted from a high-kill shelter.  Animals already play a role in my books, and I’m looking forward to including them in future novels as well.

9780778319054.inddYou frequently write using the unreliable narrator as one of your viewpoints (The Good Girl, Pretty Baby, and her newest novel, Don’t You Cry all feature unreliable narrators). Readers have VERY strong opinions about unreliable narrators, but they fascinate you! To many, it feels like being led astray by the person chosen to guide you through the story. When you sit down to write, do you purposefully create characters that cannot be trusted or are they “lying to you” as you write them down? Since you have spoken about not knowing where the story will go yourself as you write, I am interested in how this aspect of it plays out!

Unreliable narrators don’t always have to be unreliable because they are lying.  In the case of The Good Girl, Mia can be considered unreliable because she has amnesia.  In Don’t You Cry, Quinn can be considered unreliable because she lacks a bit of common sense.  There are all sorts of reasons for this unreliability and to me, it doesn’t make them bad characters, but just the type that keep readers on their toes – and as a reader that’s exactly what I expect from a good suspense novel, to be kept on my toes throughout!

Finally, I like to end on a personal note. Since you often mention in interviews that your first job is as a mom and that your kiddos come first, I’m curious about what they think of your success. It’s very apparent to me that your children are not old enough yet to have read any of your books. Do they care about your job as a writer? Are they interested in it or invested in it? Are they proud of you? 🙂

They’re very proud!  My kids are 11 and 9 years old now, and have spent years watching me write, hearing the PG version of what my novels are about, and attending more book signings than they probably care to.  They’re both avid readers and writers, and I love that we can share these passions together.  They ask frequently when they can read my novels, and beg me to write a book that they’re actually able to read.  I love that we’re on this journey together.

Thank you so much, Mary, for taking time out of your day to answer my questions! I am elated and honored to have you here on the blog!

Thanks so much for having me!

QuickLit – November 2016

Linking up to Modern Mrs. Darcy for her monthly QuickLit post, where we share “short and sweet reviews of what we’ve been reading lately”. I’ll share everything I’ve read over the previous month here at the end of each month, in the order I finished reading them. I read 12 books this month! That’s a great reading month for me!


01-behind-closed-doorsBehind Closed Doors by B.A. Paris

Currently $2.99 on Kindle!

This book was really disturbing. the farther I got into it the faster I had to read because it was freaking me out. It’s been called “the psychological thriller you won’t be able to put down” and that’s exactly what it was for me. Grace and Jack Angel’s marriage looks totally perfect from the outside, but….. ugggghhh. Totally terrified me in the best way. all kinds of trigger warnings for this book but if you like psychological thrillers, definitely pick it up!


02-small-great-thingsSmall Great Things by Jodi Picoult

This has unseated The Storyteller as absolutely my favorite of Picoult’s books thus far. It can be adequately summed up by the author’s note at the end. She challenged herself and all of her white readers by writing as a black woman and a white supremacist man. I was challenged and moved and cried (as per usual with her books). Systematic racism is real and horrifying and unseen by so many of us who have lived out our lives in white privilege. I cannot recommend this book highly enough.


03-the-dispatcherThe Dispatcher by John Scalzi

I picked up this audio novella when it was on sale for free on day, never having read any of Scalzi’s work. I was honestly hooked by Zachary Quinto’s voice (Spock and Skylar!). His chilling voice is perfect for this little Sci fi romp into a world where murder is virtually ineffective: 999/1000 times you come back to life, but if you are murdered. and people use that to their advantage with dispatchers, who kill you if you are about to die so that you can come back. Super interesting premise and a quick “read” (only as an audiobook). I recommend it


04-hillbilly-elegyHillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance

I heard this recommended multiple times from varying sources, especially for those who were dying to understand Trump’s rise in popularity with the rust belt. I finished it the night before Election Day and found it supremely interesting. Vance’s upbringing and escape of the hillbilly culture into the middle class were fantastic. For those that are dying to understand the unseen part of America that helped vote Trump into the presidency, I cannot recommend this highly enough.


05-when-breath-becomes-airWhen Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi

Paul Kalanithi is a neurosurgeon who considered a career in creative writing. Those two very disparate paths led to this amazing memoir detailing his diagnosis of cancer and the subsequent fight for his life. Paul’s writing is beautiful and poignant. He so faithfully captures both the doctor and patient side of care. As with everyone else who read this novel and recommended it, the afterword by his wife left me weeping on the floor. So, yes, cry-fest warning on this one!


06-arrowoodArrowood by Laura McHugh

I couldn’t put down this Gothic mystery about the disappearance of Arden Arrowood’s twin baby sisters when she was a young girl. Arden returns to her family’s home in Iowa after the death of her father and finds herself confronted by the past. Her family moved away from the home shortly after the disappearance of her sisters, with Arden as the sole witness. Definitely got my heart pounding a few times and had me guessing in the wrong direction a few times. Overall, very readable and entertaining. I look forward to picking up her previous novel, The Weight of Blood, as well.


 

07-portrait-of-emily-price

A Portrait of Emily Price by Katherine Reay

Be sure you check out my interview with Katherine, the first author I had on my site! I loved this book and feel like we’re really starting to see Reay’s evolution as a writer. She is really coming into her own, writing stories that she is putting her whole self into. I do kind of feel like there are two stories in this one though, and with a little more length on each, it could have been two novels instead. there’s just that much good stuff here. Emily and Ben are your favorite romantic comedy couple in paper form. ❤❤❤


08-light-of-the-worldThe Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander

Elizabeth Alexander primarily writes poetry, and that is achingly obvious in this memoir about the loss of her husband unexpectedly at age 50. although his death is the pivot point, this book is more about their life together, the fallout/healing after his death, and his family, more so than the event itself. I thought it was beautifully written. However, I read two books about the loss of a husband in a single week and it’s a bit too much. IMPORTANT NOTE: I AM NOT FACING THE LOSS OF MY HUSBAND, THEY JUST HAPPENED TO BOTH COME UP AT THE LIBRARY AT ONCE!


09-i-hate-everyone-except-youI Hate Everyone, Except You by Clinton Kelly

This was like reading a book written by my bestie. I’ve been a “fruit fly” (the tender and ridiculous name for those girls that hang around gay boys) for the majority of my life and this book feels like the musings of a more famous version of my dear gay boys. You know Clinton Kelly from What Not to Wear and/or The Chew. Kelly doesn’t pull any punches, except for revealing the intimate details of his marriage. All the rest is fair, and fairly hilarious, game. This one comes out in January. I received an advance copy from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


12-victoriaVictoria by Daisy Goodwin

This historical novel details only the first year or two of the reign of Queen Victoria of England. It is deftly written, pulling you into a story that is more than a century old as though it dealt with current events. I enjoyed the characters but found young Victoria petulant, which I’m sure the author intended. definitely recommended for fans of historical fiction and/or fans of the royals (The Royal We, Downton Abbey, etc). I received an advanced copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.


10-tell-me-three-thingsTell Me Three Things by Julie Buxbaum

This is great YA lit. Is smart and funny and endearing without being inane, or sob-fest-worthy. High school drama, yes, but not overly dramatic. Mostly about growing up and first love, and we can all get behind that!

Jessie is a transplant to a new school and receives an email after her first day there from Somebody Nobody, who offers to be her “spirit guide” through the wild halls of their high school. Such a fun premise. Think You’ve Got Mail.


11-homegoing Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi

This novel contains a story of a single family that spans 6 or 7 generations and multiple continents. From 18th century Africa to modern day America, we follow an African family, beginning with the two daughters of Maame. The vignettes that give us glimpses of each generation are wonderfully written and so well put together. It’s like a shallow dive into African culture, slavery, the American Civil War, Jim Crow, and current BLM movements. Gently leading the reader to see from all points of view (or at least one different from your own).

Author Interview – Gilly Macmillan

gillyHello Gilly! Thank you so much for agreeing to be on Notes on Bookmarks for an interview! With a brand new release, you must be very busy right now, so I very much appreciate you taking the time for me. I always start out my interviews with the same request and then we’ll go from there: please give us the 2-minute Gilly MacMillan biography and then spill one thing that not many people know about you (a favorite something, a weird human trick, etc).

Hello!  Thanks so much for having me on Notes on Bookmarks. It’s a pleasure to answer such thoughtful questions.

I was born in Swindon, Wiltshire in the UK and grew up there until I was in my late teens when my parents moved to Menlo Park, California for a few years, before returning to the UK. I studied History of Art as an undergraduate at the University of Bristol and did a masters at the Courtauld Institute in London. I worked in the art world in London for a few years, including the Hayward Gallery. After starting my family, I spent years as a stay-at-home mum and then eased back into work teaching photography.  I did that until I decided to try and write a book!

Something not many people know: one of my sons plays Timothy Turner in the BBC TV series Call the Midwife

51yos5ttoxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_We’ll tackle your books chronologically and start with What She Knew. I have been reading about you all over the internet, so I know you based this book on your own worst fear as a mother of three: that one of your children might go missing and you wouldn’t know what had happened to them. As a mom of three myself, I can definitely identify with that fear! In fact, I blame YOUR book for a brief stint in triage at the tail end of my most recent pregnancy! At my standard 36 week prenatal appointment, I had notably high blood pressure when I had been reading What She Knew in the waiting room. I switched books for the two-hour monitoring period and my BP went right back to normal! 😉 As you’ve continued to write (just released a second novel and working on a third), have you used this same “my own worst fears” technique to come up with ideas? Or have you started drawing more on the world at large and news headlines?

I’m so sorry about the BP!!!  What She Knew was certainly based on a core personal fear and I think that some of the themes in The Perfect Girl tap into fears of mine too, but I think you naturally begin to draw more on the world at large as you develop more stories, and I’ve certainly done that.  The Perfect Girl is based on a real court case I heard about, for example.

Having said that, I try to pick themes that I have an emotional connection to, because I want to make the books resonate emotionally with readers and I believe I need to care about the characters and issues myself to make that work.

You’ve spoken about how What She Knew utilizes social media almost as a character unto itself, but that you weren’t part of social media when you started writing the book. How did you capture that social media spiral so effectively when you weren’t yet part of that world? Or was joining Facebook part of your research for the book?

You’re right, I didn’t join Facebook or Twitter until long after the book was written, and my publishers encouraged me to. I wasn’t a social media user at all while writing What She Knew, in fact I was very ignorant about it, so I put in a lot of research to try to get it right in the book. As I was writing What She Knew there were two shocking real life cases of children disappearing in the UK and I followed them closely online as events unfolded.  I looked at the online comments people were making at the end of news articles and anything that was publicly accessible, including dedicated Facebook faces. I was particularly interested in the more extreme, personal reactions, because I thought they would be the thing that could hurt you the most if you were in the position of Rachel, the mother of the abducted boy in What She Knew. Some of what I read was shocking, and very sobering. It was a real education.

In your interview with Huffington Post, you discuss the title of the book a little bit and how What She Knew is really about mother’s intuition. How has your own intuition served you during your time as a mother? Do you think mother’s intuition is given full credit or discounted out of hand?

I think you have to use your intuition every single day when you’re a mother, because there is so much that you have to help your children through, at every single stage.  I’ve found it particularly noticeable because I have three children and they’re so very different from each other.  Advice I give to one sometimes doesn’t work for the others so you have to fall back on your knowledge of their personalities and strengths and weaknesses when you’re trying to help them.

That’s what I think intuition is built on: knowing them very, very well, possibly better than anybody else.  I’m not sure how much a mother’s intuition is given credit. I think that depends who you ask, but I certainly believe it can be a powerful thing.

Finally, with regard to What She Knew, let’s talk about how child abductions are very rare and there’s a whole movement for “Free Range Kids” in this age of the Helicopter/tiger mom. Where do you fall on that free-range/helicopter spectrum (or where were you when you had smaller kids instead of teens)? Did the research for this book make you more protective or worried as a parent? It seems to me like it might be hard not to internalize the narrative a bit?

I fall in the camp of what I would describe as common sense parenting. Children evolve so fast from the very first moment and I believe a huge part of a parent’s job is to prepare them for the real world.  That includes introducing them to freedoms as and when they need them. I wouldn’t advocate shoving them out into the world for the sake of it but I would say that the more skills you teach your kids, the better off they’re going to be. That includes independence so, yes, exercise common sense and caution where appropriate but don’t raise them in cotton wool or you’ll create some very dependent adults and that’s not healthy for their emotional development or future success.

I don’t think the research made me more cautious, because I’ve always been a careful parent, and the statistics I read do show how rare stranger abduction is.  However, I’ve been told off by many friends who live in Bristol, because they tell me they’re just that little bit more jumpy when they walk in the woods now!

01-perfect-girlNow, let’s move forward to The Perfect Girl, your new release about a young piano prodigy with a troubled past. We find out early on in the novel that a new horror has entered her life and live through a brutal 24 hours with her. You spoke in an interview with Harper Audio about how Classical music (which you listened to often while you were writing) is almost like a thriller in itself with its peaks and troughs and suspense and periods of rest. Is that a connection you made while you were writing the novel? Or had you thought that beforehand? Do you have any musical background yourself?

When I wrote my first novel, What She Knew, I listened to a lot of choral music to help me to get the tone of Rachel’s narrative, and a sustained sense of her trauma, so it’s certainly something I’ve done before.  When I was writing The Perfect Girl I would begin my writing day with Rossini’s The Thieving Magpie to get me started (Haruki Murakami describes that piece quite rightly as the best music for boiling pasta to – it’s so full of energy), and after that I would listen to four Chopin Ballades on a loop.  They were just perfect for writing that book.  I would also occasionally listen to Pachelbel’s Canon, which is the soundtrack to the opening scene of Ordinary People, a movie that was a big inspiration for The Perfect Girl.  It has such a note of sadness through it.

I’m not a musician myself, but my home was filled with Opera while I was growing up – my parents loved it – and one of my sons is a very good pianist. He introduced me to Chopin and lots of other wonderful music.

The protagonist in The Perfect Girl, Zoe, is a flawed genius. Her IQ is off the charts but her emotional life is pretty screwed up. Do you think that her emotional trauma comes mostly from her life experience? Or is it likely, in your view, that most super geniuses have a bit of a less well-rounded personality (this isn’t just you, of course, we see this often as a character in various novels)? Can we be brilliant feelers or can we only REALLY excel at one or the other?

That’s a very interesting question. I think it must come down to how we’re raised, and what we experience, in some ways.  As you say, there are certainly some people out there who have very high IQs and are not so good at relating to others, but I think there must be people out there who can do both.

In the book, Zoe’s emotional life is definitely screwed up, but I do think she’s also capable of feeling very astutely – she reads her mother’s emotions well, for example – so I think you’re right to say that her emotional trauma comes mostly (though perhaps not entirely) from her life experiences.  Her experiences have been so unusual – the musical brilliance and the contrasting darker worlds of guilt and imprisonment – that she can’t help but struggle to find other people to relate to.  When we meet her at the beginning of the book, she’s very lonely as a result of this and that can create a cycle of finding it difficult to relate easily to others.  There’s a lot of complicated cause and effect in Zoe’s case and I suspect that’s true of many people.

Since What She Knew was based on your (and my) worst fears as a parent, I can say that The Perfect Girl draws upon another of MY parenting fears (that some sort of injury would befall me, leaving me unable to care for my kids). You say in that same HuffPo interview above that “As safe as we are in our domestic environments, it just takes one moment to tip us over into a very difficult place.” Is that what every thriller preys on, do you think? The fact that one moment can change everything in your life forever? Have you had any personal life-changing moments that led you to be able to write them so well?

I think that particular fear must be one of the things that accounts for the popularity of what people are calling the ‘domestic noir’ genre nowadays. The sense that everything we’ve built for our families is somehow precarious has got to be a visceral fear for many of us.

For our family, that moment was a diagnosis of cancer for one of our children.  It changed everything in an instant. At the time, one of our neighbors said to me, ‘It was as if a bolt of lightning came out of nowhere and hit your house.’  It certainly felt like that at the time, though thankfully my son made a full recovery.  I’ve never taken anything for granted since then.

Last question: you’ve revealed that DI Jim Clemo will be returning in your third novel, as a kind of sequel to What She Knew. I think he’s a great character and I’m so excited to see him return! This seems like a new tactic for you and a departure from your previous novels: to have a character figured out instead of the suspense plot (you mention having written WSK in entirely Rachel’s point of view for the first draft and then added Clemo’s view later in edits). Is it easier or more difficult to churn out the words/plot in this situation? Or did you decide to bring Clemo back and then develop the plot to insert him into it? Or did you already have the story sorted and decide to bring him back as DI? I’m so curious as to how the writing process works!

I’m so pleased you like him!  It’s been really interesting to bring Jim Clemo back, and I’ve enjoyed it hugely, partly because using a character from a previous novel is like meeting an old friend, and partly because it was a real professional challenge to develop him as a character across a new novel. I knew I wanted to bring him back from the outset, and I developed the book so that the story would allow his character to face new tests, both personal and professional.  The case Clemo works on in my third book is very different from the one in What She Knew – it involves two teenage boys who are involved in an incident that leaves one of them in a coma and the other unable to speak about what’s happened – but the stakes are similarly high for him.  I’ve tried to produce another compelling story, this time about two families whose lives are turned upside down, alongside a new and gripping character arc for Clemo. That’s the idea, anyway! I hope people will enjoy it.

Oh, my goodness, Gilly! I am so thrilled by this interview. It is compelling and interesting and deep in so many ways. Thank you from the bottom of my heart, for taking the time to answer questions for me, in the middle of book deadlines. I appreciate it so very much. Can’t wait for Novel #3!

Author Interview – Martha Hall Kelly

martha_about_imageHi Martha! Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for my blog. I love getting to virtually meet authors of books I love, and yours is no exception!

Let’s get started with the 2-minute Martha Hall Kelly intro as well as a tidbit that not many people know about you (your favorite song to jam out to, your least favorite family vacation, your weirdest food craving, etc).

Martha Hall Kelly is the author of Lilac Girls, the New York Times bestselling novel based on the true story of how socialite and philanthropist Caroline Ferriday brought a group of young Polish women  experimented on at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp to the U.S. for treatment. She and her husband Michael, a media executive, have raised three lovely children and one fabulous mini goldendoodle. Martha is working on her next book, a prequel to Lilac Girls, coming soon from Ballantine Books. You can follow all the news at marthahallkelly.com.

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The bear dumplings Martha had in Russia!

What people may not know:  My favorite song to jam out to?  Either Stevie Wonder’s For Once In My Life or The Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men.  Weirdest food craving? Had bear dumplings in Russia recently when I was researching in St. Petersburg and they were surprisingly delicious.

 

Alright, now let’s dive in to Lilac Girls! Your first novel, released on April 5, 2016, it shot onto the NYT bestseller list right away! You became interested in Caroline Ferriday, one of your three main characters, after a trip to the Bellamy-Ferriday house near your own home on a day that you were in a funk. You saw a photo of Caroline with the rabbits and decided you had to know her story (although you say you weren’t thinking of writing a book at the time). Had you considered yourself a writer prior to that time? Do you have other unpublished stories? It’s so hard for me to think that you didn’t even think you were going to write about her story, since you wrote it so beautifully!

I worked as an advertising copywriter for ten years straight out of college, writing mostly TV commercials and print ads, but never wrote anything close to a novel. I became a stay at home Mom once I had my third child, so I stopped thinking of myself as a writer after that. But I recently filled out a visa application and inked in ”author” to the profession box, so it’s nice to finally own that now.

09-lilac-girlsI opted for the audio version, as a friend recommended it that way, and I think the three narrators REALLY brought the story to life. I read in this essay (interviewer note: be sure to click through to this link as there are beautiful maps of both Caroline’s New York and Kasia’s Lublin, Poland, that really embody the geographical references) that Caroline was the easiest for you to write, since her life was closest to yours (especially geographically), but that you were more able to get into Kasia and Herta’s characters after your research trip to Poland. I am wondering if, during your research, you came across stories about Herta’s younger life prior to her time at Ravensbruck. She is SO likable at the beginning, and you write her struggle so well to conform to the Nazi plans at the camp, but she is also clearly the villain in the book. I’m curious as to how you decided to have her make that shift, or if her early life suggests that pattern?

In Lilac Girls I wanted to show what it was like to go from a fairly normal German childhood, which Herta Oberheuser had, to participating, as a physician, in heinous experiments on healthy women. In my research, I found that, like many young women indoctrinated into National Socialism, Herta Oberheuser grew up steeped in Nazi propaganda. Her parents struggled financially and she wanted to be a doctor from a young age. From that, I showed her early life and used the transcripts of the Doctor’s Trial as a roadmap for her later life. In the transcripts, for example, she claims she felt like an outsider at the camp, since she was the only female doctor at the all-female camp.

When you were interviewed by Patricia Raskin, she asked about your takeaway from the story that you feel brings us hope. You talked about how Americans didn’t want to talk about the war or deal with the refugees yet they still rallied around the “rabbits” in an amazing way and really provided for them with “an outpouring of love and generosity”. It seems to me that we currently hear a lot of messages of hate and selfishness. Do you think the American people can and will rally like this again, especially after the election is over? Or have we drawn a line in the sand that precludes the love and generosity that our forebears poured out over these women?

This is such an important question. I hope Americans are looking to history to learn how to go forward in an informed way. There are so many frightening parallels. I do think there is a sad lack of compassion today for people who may not look or worship or vote exactly as we do. In Caroline’s time the upper classes felt morally bound to work for those less fortunate, not necessarily of their own race or religion, and the “every person for him or herself” attitude we see today was much less prevalent. I do think Americans can rally again if we actively look for ways to help others, regardless of religion and race.

 

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Caroline Ferriday’s “rabbits” – the Polish women she brought to America for medical treatment, post WWII

In another interview on POLcast, the English-language podcast about Poland, you discuss coming home to re-write the end of the book, since the two rabbits that you got to meet in person were so forgiving toward the people who had performed these atrocities. Your Polish character, Kasia, has PTSD from what she suffered (before that was a labeled condition), and really has a hard time coming back home. Without giving too much away about the ending, can you give us a clue as to how the two endings are different?

 

I originally wrote the ending with Kasia being much more combative and angry and unhinged, the way I might have acted in her place. But as a novelist I have to constantly remind myself it’s not my attitudes and opinions that matter, it’s the character’s. So when I found out that the real rabbits were more forgiving and had decided to let go of that same kind of vitriolic anger I softened Kasia’s reaction.

In this post on your own blog, you talk about how the most common question you get asked by book clubs is “what happened to Herta after she was released from prison?” (click through for the answer if you’ve already read the book!). Are there any other gems of information that you learned after the book was edited/printed or that you couldn’t include for another reason (perhaps it didn’t advance the story) that you’re dying to share?

I wish I could have included the story of the babies and children of Ravensbruck, a terribly sad part of the already horrible camp, but it was not germane to my story.

When you talk about your forthcoming books, as you did on the POLcast episode, you tell us you’re writing a prequel to Lilac Girls about Caroline’s mother during WWI, and a pre-prequel about Caroline’s grandmother during the civil war. Does Caroline come from a long line of women who help? Or are you writing more “novels” in the future with fewer historical touchpoints? I’m so intrigued by the idea of generation after generation of women from the same family that are each influential… but I also find it hard to believe based on the way Caroline’s mother reacts in Lilac Girls to her “do-gooding”. Enlighten us!

Caroline came from a long line of philanthropic women, the Woolsey women. Her mother Eliza Mitchell Ferriday work tirelessly for the White Russians, the Russian aristocracy displaced by the Bolsheviks after the revolution. And Caroline’s great grandmother nursed soldiers on the Gettysburg battlefield and was a staunch abolitionist. Incredible women!

Wow, Martha! Thank you so much for your wonderful answers to my questions. I am SO looking forward to the next book (and the one after that)! You are an absolute treat to interview (and super speedy at responding!). All my thanks.