Quick Lit – July 2016

Quick Lit – July 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 right around the middle of each month, in the order I finished reading them.


1 - Sea of TranquilitySea of Tranquility by Katja Millay

A YA novel that straddles that content level between YA and real adult. Millay does a great job weaving together the stories of Nastya and Josh, two high school students who don’t seem to fit in anywhere. Really enjoyed this one!

 

 


2 - When I'm GoneWhen I’m Gone by Emily Bleeker

This story comes with a “tissues” warning. I listened to it on Audiobook and breezed through it, but it deals with some tough stuff. Centers around the letters received by a bereaved widow after his wife dies of cancer, so… you know, all happy things. It was very well written and didn’t FEEL emotionally manipulative, but it definitely tears at the heartstrings.

 


3 - Play with FirePlay with Fire by Bianca Juarez Olthoff

Due out at the end of August, look for a forthcoming interview with Bianca! Her fun, witty personality comes through in spades in this Christian memoir. I’ll tell you that she didn’t have an easy life, by any means, but is fantastic at finding ways to reflect the saving grace she found through every circumstance (even if it is in hindsight!). Bianca is charming and sweet, and oh so fun to hear speak. Definitely recommended.

 


4 - Faithful

Faithful by Alice Hoffman

I got to pre-read this with an advanced copy from NetGalley. It isn’t due out until November 1st! It was beautifully written and artfully done. Even though the main character starts out as a 17 year old, she grows in maturity and age quite a bit over the course of this novel, so I wouldn’t classify it as young adult. And look at that cover! Not that you’d choose a book that way, but it definitely grabbed me!

 


5 - Light Between OceansLight Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

Oh, I love this book. This is actually a re-read for me, since I read it for book club a few years ago and just picked it up again for ANOTHER book club! But it doesn’t get old. The setting (lighthouse off the coast of Australia) and characters are beautiful. The plot is compelling and the details are everywhere. It was definitely worth a re-read and still ranks very high as one of my favorite books!

 


6 - The Nest

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

Oh, this book was such fun. Four siblings are supposed to receive a large inheritance from their father when the youngest turns 40. But, just a few months before the birthday, the eldest gets into trouble, causing their mother to spend almost the entire “Nest” as they affectionately call it. The sibling dynamics, the money issues, the NYC setting, all of it makes this book a great read. And my interview with Cynthia was such fun. This is her debut novel and she knocked it out of the park.


7 - One in a Million BoyThe One-in-A-Million Boy by Monica Wood

For fans of A Man Called Ove, or other poignant, personality-driven narratives, don’t wait to pick this one up! It centers around 104-year old Ona Viktus and Quinn, the father of a boy who was supposed to fill her bird feeders all summer. The self-discovery of both over the course of this novel is sweet and will bring a smile. Ona is a spitfire and everyone will be wishing they had a great-grandma like her by the end. Loved it!

 


8 - 11-22-63 11/22/63: A Novel by Stephen King

This one is a monster book (880 pages), so I picked it up on Audible and couldn’t “put it down”. Even if you’ve decided in the past that you aren’t a fan of Stephen King or thrillers, this is a complete departure from his previous works. Much more REALLY well researched historical fiction than anything else (with some thrill and time travel thrown in for good measure). I kept thinking that my dad would LOVE this book as I read it, so I hope I can convince him to pick it up and stick with it, because it really was phenomenal, and I loved every minute.


9 - My Name is Lucy Barton

My Name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout

This is, more than anything, about the relationship between a daughter and her mother. I found it really difficult to get into. Picked it up as an audiobook from the library, and was really glad that I got to return it afterward, as it seemed to have very little “point” to it. I had heard really great reviews about it, and not seen many detractors, so I thought I would enjoy it, but I just… didn’t.

 


10 - I Let You Go

I Let You Go by Clare Mackintosh

Decided to add this as an extra book to my Book of the Month box and I’m so glad I did. The very beginning of the story starts with a 5-year old boy being killed in a hit-and-run car accident (so, yes, a bit close to home… this mama has been extra “hand holdy” lately with my two boys!). The author worked on a police force prior to writing this novel, so the detective scenes are spot on. And the twists she takes you through are completely unforeseeable. I finished this in just 3 days because I COULD NOT put it down.


11 - Before the FallBefore the Fall by Noah Hawley

Another mystery/thriller that I heard about through Book of the Month, but then was able to snag on NetGalley! A plane crashes a few minutes after taking off from Martha’s Vineyard (revealed in the first chapter). A painter and a 4-year old boy are the only survivors. We spend the rest of the novel trying to determine what happened by looking forward from the crash and the fallout, and looking back at the lives of each person on board in the time leading up to the crash. Hawley is amazing at weaving together all the points of view from all the characters. Definitely grab this one!


 

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Author Interview – Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

headshotHello Cynthia! Thank you so much for taking a chance on me and my little blog! I have read so much about you, since your debut novel made headlines across the internet/media and there’s just a glut of Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney interviews to read! I know you must be so busy with all the book stops and publicity touring, so I’ll try to keep this short!

Even though I usually ask for the 2-minute intro, I’m going to just go ahead and use the bio from your website and then ask for one other “little known” fact about you (your favorite band to listen to, your favorite comfort food, your least favorite smell, etc). Something that not many know outside your immediate circle.

 Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. She has an MFA from The Bennington Writing Seminars. Previously, she lived and worked in New York City for more than two decades, writing copy for a variety of clients, including American Express, McDonald’s and more defunct Internet start-ups than she cares to count. Her non-fiction essays have been published in The New York Times Magazine and Martha Stewart Living.

The Nest is her first novel.

I don’t really like ice cream, which based on other people’s reaction is the most shocking thing about me.

I loved reading this interview on Electric Literature about your writing process and your plot development. I feel like many authors take a different approach, where the story arc has to be completely revealed before they even put an opening sentence on the paper. Do you feel like this method of writing freed you up to write a better story? Do you feel like it was the right method for you? Or will you try anything different in the future?

I know very few writers who know the story before they start writing and I’m not sure I would even want to if I could figure out how to plot in advance. I have a general sense of a situation and characters and the most exciting part of writing, for me, is discovering what the story will become. I was probably a little more than halfway through The Nest when I figured out how I was going to resolve all the plot threads and to be honest the writing became a little less interesting once I knew where everyone needed to end up, the work became more about playing out the inevitable and less about surprising myself. So I’d like to maintain that element of surprise as much as I can in the next project.

The Nest CoverYou’ve spoken in various interviews about the “inheritance” that your parents are leaving for you: one of experiences instead of funds. What kinds of experiences from your childhood do you look back on most fondly? Special trips? Adventures? Classes that really allowed you to explore your passions? My parents have taken a similar approach to my brother and I, and I could not be more grateful to them for the countries I’ve seen, the cultures I’ve encountered, and the broadness and depth of life that they have given me. It’s definitely an inheritance that I hope to leave for my own children some day!

My parents loved to travel and they took us to as many places as they could, sometimes tagging a family vacation onto a business trip of my father’s. We went to Maine every summer starting when I was 10 and we still go to the same small town and my kids have gone every year of their life. My parents rent the same tiny cottage they found in 1970 and my siblings and I rent places nearby. My cousin has even bought a vacation house in the same spot, so that place is deeply entrenched in our family history and no doubt will be for many years to come.

As another note on inheritances, you talk about the inheritance of a “family narrative”. How it’s something we don’t get to choose or control: who else is part of our story, what place we take in the family. And that THIS is where your readers will really get to connect with this story, even if they don’t have to make decisions about what to do WITHOUT a large family inheritance. How do you feel like your own family narrative shaped your life? With regard to your family of origin as well as your married life and your children?

We are all born into a story that we have little control over, including who the other characters in the story are and what part we’re assigned to play out. We just become the youngest or the oldest and all the birth order stuff is potent. For example, I was the oldest of four and the defacto babysitter of my younger siblings and I have to remind myself that I’m not the boss of everyone anymore! My youngest brother has to remind us he’s not “the baby.” Siblings know how to push each other’s buttons quicker than anyone else on earth but, ideally, as we get older we can take each other’s feelings into account and occasionally bite our tongues or soften our judgments. People need to be allowed to grow up and cast off some of the family labels acquired as kids. We’re all trying our best to make sense of the world and so it’s tempting to reduce people to easy identifiers: the bookish one, the funny one, the shy one, the jock. But there comes a time when you want to write your own story and breaking free from a family narrative can be hard. I think my husband and I have tried to show our kids that being open to people and experiences in life is important, as is not letting other people’s opinions or needs define who they are or how they move through the world. The world will always offer up standard definitions of success; the challenge is to figure out what your definition is and to stay as true to that as possible.

New York City plays a huge role in this novel, almost as a character unto itself. You were a New Yorker for 27 years before moving to Los Angeles. Do you feel like removing yourself from the city allowed you to see it more clearly? Or being in a new location helped you to recognize what makes New York so unique?

Both! When I moved to Los Angeles, I missed New York City and I was excited when I realized I was writing a novel that would take place in New York and I could pay tribute to the City I knew and loved for decades. Writing while in California gave me some valuable distance. New York is a very in-your-face city—one of the things I love about it—but I do think the distance helped me render it more clearly. That said, before I finished revising the book, I went to New York City for a week and all I did was go to all the places in the book and make sure I’d gotten things right.

I sometimes try to end on a bit of a personal note if I can find the connection, so here we go:

I’m in my thirties, with two boys (and a third on the way), so this advice that you’d give to your 30-year-old self is so timely for me:

“For the love of God, stop worrying about your children and their homework and their grades and their extracurriculars and instrument practice and should they have another sport? Don’t think about summer activities in terms of college admissions. They will go to college — or they won’t — they will figure it out and be funny and smart and kind, so RELAX.”

From your interview with Parnassus Books (Kaytee’s note: this is my favorite interview… I wanted to pull something from every question and every answer!).

In that same interview, you talk about how dysfunctional families are the most fun to hang out with because they are more interesting. I feel like those two items are almost mutually exclusive though! The most dysfunctional families, in my experience, are the ones that “relaxed” the least when it came to control and their children. On the “relax — dysfunctional” spectrum, where would you put your own family and (grown) kiddos? Is that where you expected to be? 🙂

I’m pretty sure family dysfunction comes in all shape and sizes and endures within all parenting styles. Although I talked about being a more relaxed parent and family dysfunction in that interviewing, I don’t equate the two, and I’m not sure there’s a connection between parenting style and dysfunction. I know dysfunctional families who are super controlling and ones who could have benefitted from a little structure and better control. My point was more about needless worry than parenting styles. Having kids is stressful! I am a born worrier and continue to be. I do wish I hadn’t spent so much time when my kids were growing up worrying about whether I was doing the right thing, or questioning my decisions or second-guessing the kids’ choices . I say this from the perspective of having two older kids, so it’s easy to look back at my younger self and say “Oh, relax.” It’s not so easy to relax when they’re little!

Oh, Cynthia! What a treat to have you on the blog and get to chat with you. You are such a presence right now in the lit world (even chose one of this month’s Book of The Month selections! –> If you want to try it out, click through on my affiliate link and use code JULY35 to get 30% off and a free tote and sunglasses!) and I feel extremely privileged and grateful in that you took the time out of your life to answer my questions. I LOVED your book and can’t wait to see what else comes from you in the future! 🙂

Author Interview – Alexandra Oliva

headshotHi Alexandra! Thanks for joining us here on the blog! It’s been so fun to get to know some of my favorite authors through this process, and I’m so excited to learn more about you!

To start, I always ask for the 2-minute introduction as well as a fun little tidbit that not many know about you (which song you can’t NOT dance to, the food you crave when you’re sick, the worst smell in the world, etc). So, tell us a little about yourself!

Sure! I grew up in a tiny mountain town halfway between Albany, NY and Montreal—the kind of place most people drive through and think, “Do people really live here?” It’s lovely but isolated (though less so now than when I was there, thanks to high-speed internet). After I graduated from college in 2005, I traveled for a bit then landed in New York City, where I failed to get published but learned some cool stuff and met my husband. He and I escaped New York and are now living in the Pacific Northwest. I’ve been pursuing writing full-throttle my entire adult life; when my debut hits the shelves on July 12th, eleven years will have passed since I first declared myself a writer. It’s been a long and crazy road, and I’m so excited for this next stretch.

As for a fun tidbit: I’m thirty-three years old but still have a baby tooth. There was no adult tooth underneath to push it out so it’s still hanging in there; my dentist seems very impressed by its tenacity.

The Last One was completely gripping and thrilling and 27245997engaging. I couldn’t put it down. I think it will appeal to a broad swath of the reader-ly population and I can’t wait to share it as a “must read” to my friends. As I read, I couldn’t help thinking that you must have prepared really well or been abandoned at one point in the wilderness, and I was pleased to find out that I was right (you prepared well AND were pretty much abandoned in the wilderness)! It seems like there are other threads in the novel that reflect your personal life, and I’m interested if you see Zoo as a reflection of yourself or if you put little bits of yourself into each character?

 Thank you! A lot of hands-on wilderness survival research went into writing this book, and I’m so happy to hear it’s coming across in an engaging way. To answer your question: There is a bit of me in every character I write (even if it’s something as small as Biology’s aversion to Sucralose), and there is a lot of me in Zoo. This was my first time writing fiction from a first-person perspective, and because I was pushing myself so far outside of my comfort zone in that and so many other ways, I allowed myself the relative safety of writing a main character similar to myself. Similar, but not the same—an important distinction. For example, Zoo and I are both from rural areas, we both often prefer animals to people, and we both make a mean lentil stew. But our relationships with our various loved ones are quite different, and while her misgivings about having kids may have roots in my own trepidation, any fear of mine that I gave to her has been twisted and exaggerated—massively exaggerated—in order to best serve the story. Also, her eyes are green and mine are blue, so, you know, we’re really barely alike at all.

As I dug around online to find out all I could about you, I couldn’t help but notice that you seem not just well-traveled, but to have had a lot of disparate life experiences, especially throughout the US, but also Ireland. Does the wanderlust/nomadic lifestyle appeal to you? Is that how the seed idea for The Last One came about?

I don’t know that my travel experiences contributed much to my initial conception of The Last One, but I used bits and pieces of them to help flavor and flesh out parts of the novel. Truthfully, I don’t feel as though I’ve traveled that extensively, but the traveling I have done has had a significant impact on me—I think largely because travel wasn’t part of my life growing up. The most exotic family vacation I went on as a kid was to the Jersey shore, a five-hour drive south of home. I was fifteen when I first stepped foot on a plane and twenty when I first ventured abroad. (Sorry, Canada, I grew up so close to the border you don’t count.) The idea of a nomadic lifestyle appealed to me when I younger and getting my first taste of the wider world, but it’s always been very important to me to have an established home. I love bursts of travel, and changes of pace and scenery, and pushing myself out of my comfort zone, but ultimately my tendencies tend to be pretty hermit-like.

You mention two other “practice novels” as well. Did they have similar themes? I guess I’m curious as to how this writing style developed, and who you feel has shaped you as an author. The before/after chapters centered on a turning point seem to be a relatively recent development, but so effective in this case. Any favorite books or authors we should know about, or that made you choose this way of writing?

This is a difficult question to answer, as I doubt I know all the ways I have been shaped as a writer. In recent years it’s mostly been about pushing myself outside of my comfort zone, which is rooted in genre. I grew up reading almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy—and not the softer SFF that was socially acceptable for little girls; I’m talking swords and sorcery, death and dismemberment, monsters, alien invasions, all that fun stuff. I always loved adventure and hardship, and seeing a character I loved be put through hell—whether that was a physical hell, an emotional hell, or (ideally) both. As an adult, I’ve been drawn toward a wider variety of fiction and especially toward “cross-genre” novels—stories that are difficult to categorize. As a reader, I like to be challenged and surprised in addition to being entertained, and I think arresting prose is just as important as a good plot twist—so that’s the kind of experience I strive to create as a writer.

As for my practice novels, both shared themes with The Last One, including a focus on how identity intersects and interacts with names and titles. (I’m rather obsessed with that, it seems.) But the plots and worlds and characters were entirely different, and I hadn’t yet given myself permission to have as much fun with voice as I do now. Another huge difference between my practice novels and The Last One is pacing. I’d struggled with pacing in the past, so with this novel I issued myself a challenge to keep the story as tight as possible—and I’m so glad that I did. The Last One is about half the length of Practice Novel 1 and far better for it.

I have to admit that the only thing I didn’t LOVE about this novel is that I wanted a “cheat sheet” to connect the production-Reality TV names of the characters to their given names that Zoo uses when she references them. It seemed like a fun process-of-elimination game at first, but there were some I felt like I never really got figured out and it drove me a little crazy. Can your readers find those connections online somewhere, or will they be in the front or back of the printed book? 

There’s been a wide range of reactions to my treatment of the contestants’ names; some readers seem to love it, others are indeed driven a little crazy. There won’t be a cheat sheet in the book. I consider the names in this story to be a logic puzzle, and crafting this puzzle was one of my favorite parts of the writing process. Everything hinges on Zoo’s relationships with and perception of the other contestants. I also did my best to make sure that in the cases where it’s imperative a reader connects a character’s show identity to his or her real name, that connection is one that’s easy to make. For example, I’m pretty confident everyone who reads this book will be able to figure out who Tracker is.

multi-toolI loved seeing the multi-tool that your publisher sent out with the book to UK advance-purchasers. The ingenuity of having a physical item to touch and use that reminds the reader of the book is just fantastic! Did you play any role in that process? If not, is there something else that you think would have better captured the spirit of the novel? Confession: I watched a video about how to start a fire using a bow drill… maybe someday you will have saved my life. 🙂 But hopefully not…

Wasn’t that awesome? That was all my UK marketing team; I played no role whatsoever other than having way too much fun trying out the different tools once mine reached me. I thought the multi-tool captured the spirit of the novel beautifully, especially for something that can fit in one’s wallet.

Because I’m a “tidy endings” reader, I have to ask if you have an idea in your head about what happens right after the end of the novel. Spoiler alert: I might not even put this answer up on the blog, but I have to know if they find each other, or if you envision them doing so!

From the reactions I’m getting, the ending of The Last One seems to be a bit of a litmus test for readers, which has been so interesting and surprising to see. I will say I was aiming for “ambiguous but hopeful,” and the book ends where it does for a reason. Beyond that, everything I have to say is on the page; the rest is up to the reader.

Finally, this novel comes out on July 12th, so everyone needs to go grab a copy right now! I’m sure it’s too soon to be thinking about the “next thing”, but some of the people I’ve interviewed are just overflowing with ideas, so… have you thought about what your next story will look like or started developing it? I’m sure your readers will want to see more from you!

Thank you so much! Yes, I have started developing my next idea—all I’m going to say for now is that it’s not a sequel. Thanks again for having me and for your thoughtful questions—this was a delight!

Oh, Ali! I agree! You are such a fun interview. I actually did laugh to myself as I read through these answers and am so excited to get to “share” you on your first blog interview (and my first with a debut author!). So excited to see how this book is received!!

What I’m Into – June 2016

Linking up with Leigh Kramer to share what I’m into for the month of June.

My Bullet Journal: tried it last November in a cast-off journal from the dollar store. Unsurprisingly, it didn’t take, because I wasn’t in love with the whole thing, and it felt repetitive to WRITE down what I already had in my Google calendar and such. But, I started again on June 1st with a brand new journal (The Leuchtturm 1917 dotted. Mine is yellow) bought just for the purpose and pretty pens that I love, and the realization that this is not just about keeping track of daily appointments and to-dos for me, but about journaling as well. I write down little snippets from the day. I practice my cursive with pretty quotes. I meal plan in the back and write out weekly calendars in the pages. I keep a Power Hour list and am starting a Prayer list. It’s developing organically into something beautiful. And now that I’ve been at it for a full month, I can see why there are so many Bullet Journal (BuJo) addicts in the world, and how it’s something that turns into something different for everyone!

Keeping cool: Thankfully the heat wave the hit us hard at the beginning of June seems to have slacked off a bit towards the end. We are getting monsoons (late afternoon summer storms) most evenings of the week now, and that drops the nighttime temperature enough to make the days bearable. But it’s definitely more humid! I bought a $35 (it was on sale) outdoor inflatable pool from Target that is about 7ft in diameter. It’s big enough for the boys to splash around in, and even has a seat and backrest on one side for this pregnant mama to enjoy as well. But small enough that it doesn’t take up our whole yard and doesn’t ruin our water bill to empty it and fill it again when it gets icky.

Neighboring: I read The Art of Neighboring about a year after we moved into our new home in February of 2014. I loved it and wanted to put it into practice right away, so I started plans with hubby and the neighbors we knew to put together a block party last summer. Now, we are working toward our second annual block party and the neighborhood has grown a lot. But it’s also REALLY turned into something beautiful. It’s a place where people ask for help and get it, a place where friendships are celebrated and everyone waves to each other. A place where we stick together and do life together. And I couldn’t be happier to be INTO our neighborhood!

Blue Apron: I decided that, in order to stick better to our food budget without driving myself UP the wall all the way with meal planning, I’d sign up to receive a Blue Apron box every other week for a while and see how it goes. Happy to report that it’s been absolutely fantastic. Blue Apron sends all the ingredients and a detailed recipe for two meals for the week (for 2 or 4 people). They are always very tasty and, I’ve heard from others, a great way to get your feet wet if you’re just starting to cook at home. I’m a pretty decent hand in the kitchen, so… My favorite thing? Having two meals planned for me with all the goodies delivered to my door! It even saved me a trip to the grocery store this week when my box came a day earlier than planned. Glory glory hallelujah!

Literary Statistics: I use Goodreads to track my reading throughout the year. I’m a bit religious about it, actually. I LOVE marking a book as “currently reading” and I love even more when I can mark it “read.” Partly due to audiobooks (and my bluetooth headphones making it so much easier to listen), partly due to NetGalley and the ability to get new books to read for free, and partly because I’ve finally embraced the “read more than one book at a time” technique, I’ve been TEARING through books this year. On Goodreads, you can set a reading goal for the year, and I went with 50 books (last year I read 52). As of midway through the year, I’ve read 45 books! That already amounts to 15,268 pages for the year. That’s a LOT. If I can keep up the pace through the end of the year, it’ll blow away any previous reading I’ve done in a big way. And I’m better for it.