Category: book clubs

How to bring more joy to your life!

Hello, reading friends. I hope you are able to find a place of tranquility on this Friday afternoon but if you’re feeling stretched in too many directions while at the same time feeling isolated and kerfuffled, I have an interview here for you – and a book – that might help. My dear friend Anne Bogel, who you might also know as the amazing Modern Mrs. Darcy, has a brand new book out – and yes, it released into a weary world in the middle of this pandemic – and it is so timely. DON’T OVERTHINK IT is Anne’s third book and in its pages, she wants to help you not only overcome negative thought patterns that rob you of joy and peace but replace them with positive ones. More than a book about good decision-making, the back cover says, DON’T OVERTHINK IT “offers you a framework for making choices you’ll be comfortable with, allowing you to use an appropriate amount of energy and freeing you to focus on all the other stuff that matters in life.”

Anne, aka MODERN MRS. DARCY, is the author of READING PEOPLE and I’D RATHER BE READING and creator of the excellent podcast WHAT SHOULD I READ NEXT? She makes her home with her family in Louisville, Kentucky and is a pure joy to know. Read on to see how to get in on a drawing for a copy of her book and to check out her terrific Stay-at-Home-Book-Tour videos for both her book (all your many questions are answered!) and one for mine, THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR, which released in paperback into this strange, new world on Tuesday.  But first, let’s chat with Anne:

SUSAN: Tell us about your new book. Did you ever dream you were writing a book that people might need in the midst of a pandemic?

ANNE: I certainly didn’t! The new book is about making easier decisions, stopping second-guessing, and bringing more joy to your life. Studies show nearly all of us engage in overthinking—that means repetitive, unhealthy, unhelpful thoughts. Overthinking is exhausting, and it makes us miserable. But with new strategies and some practice, we can learn to stop thinking our way out of happiness and think our way into it instead.

For many people, overthinking is a deeply entrenched habit, so overcoming it requires new strategies and plenty of practice. I imagine that’s why people are finding the book so helpful right now: we’re all dealing with circumstances we haven’t seen in our lifetimes. Our routines have been disrupted, and we’re having to make lots of decisions we never anticipated. Not only that, the news is a major overthinking trigger. People need resources; they need help.

SUSAN: So true. Was there anything in the writing and research for this book that surprised you?

ANNE: Before I began this project, I was oblivious to the connection between overthinking and perfectionism. I’m a recovering perfectionist, and those tendencies still trip me up sometimes. Once I understood how much of my own overthinking was driven by perfectionism it became much easier to overcome those particular negative thought patterns.

SUSAN: That is so interesting. I think I might be a wannabe perfectionist! That’s either not quite as bad or far worse! What are some tips from the book that all of us can use in these uncertain times?

ANNE: First, when you take care of your body, you take care of your brain, so focusing on the basics is crucial to set yourself up for success in this area: don’t forget to eat breakfast, get some exercise, drink your water, get enough sleep.

We all have moments where we catch ourselves stuck on the overthinking treadmill, and when that happens it’s good to have some strategies handy so we can pull ourselves out of that thought spiral. Try scheduling time to overthink each day: this may sound counterintuitive, but if you tell yourself you’ll indulge that overthinking at the designated hour, it’s easier to put those thoughts aside for the rest of the day. Try distracting yourself: this works because the brain can only focus on so many things at once. Give your mind something else to occupy it: read a book, pay a bill, play a game of Tetris, follow a new recipe. Finally, when your brain is stuck, move your body: take a walk, go for a run, do a set of plans or some jumping jacks. When you move your body, you move your mind.

Susan here again. Such good words. Anne spoke more about this book and answered questions from a packed Zoom room where a virtual book stop took place. A great listen if you want to hear more from Anne. Mine is also available to watch on this same replay page.

You can get a copy of Anne’s book and at the same time support local independent bookstores by shopping for it right here.

If you’d like to get in on a drawing for a copy of Anne’s book, just drop a comment below and tell us one way you are coping with the difficult circumstances we are all presently bound up in. It can be a fun way, serious way, easy or complex. We want to hear them all. A winner (and it can be an international winner if bookdepository is still shipping to your country) will be randomly drawn at noon Pacific on Monday. Happy Easter weekend all!

What I’ve been reading…

I’ve been very remiss in feeding the blog of late. Sorry about that. I have a good excuse, one that I hope you will approve of; it’s because I’ve been writing a new book and closing in on the finish line and have been a bit distracted. I’ll be sharing more about that in the weeks to come!

I thought I’d pop in today and recap some of the books that I’ve been reading since the last time I was here. I have in fact been reading a lot of great books, just not reporting back to you (again, sorry!). So here in no particular order are five books I read in the last few months.

I bought Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward in an airport bookstore because I was traveling for book-related stuff and ran out of reading material – which is a nightmare to those of us who look forward to uninterrupted hours in an airplane as THE BEST READING TIME in the world. I had seen this novel on some lists and knew that it had been critically acclaimed and so I bought it on a whim and quickly became engrossed in the tale. The protagonist is a young teenage boy who is a member of a particularly interesting but nevertheless flawed family. He’s been forced to grow up too soon, taking on responsibility for absent and/or negligent parents. The writing is beautiful and evocative and there are hints of magic realism that really do make the book sing. If you don’t like magic realism at all, this might not be the book for you but I loved it.

I picked up The House of Broken Angels at the San Diego Festival of Books in August after hearing its author, Luis Alberto Urrea, speak the night before the Festival began. I was entranced with his story and storytelling ability. The book is set primarily in San Diego, where I was born and raised and have come back home to. It’s based on Urrea’s own life experience about growing up in a family living on the US | Mexico border.  It begins on the eve of the patriarch’s birthday celebration. Here’s just a snippet from the back cover: “Across two bittersweet days in their San Diego neighborhood, the revelers mingle among the palm trees and cacti, celebrating the lives of Big Angel and his mother, and recounting the many inspiring tales that have passed into family lore, the acts both ordinary and heroic that brought these citizens to a fraught and sublime country and allowed them to flourish in the land they have come to call home.” It was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and beautifully written. I highly recommend.

The Tattooist of Auschwitz is another book that I bought in an airport when I had run out of reading material – this seems to be a common thing with me – because it had been on the New York Times bestseller list for a year and I figured it was there for a reason. I did not know it was based on a true story, and of course once I did and once I had fallen into the pages I was completely captivated by it. Stories of the Holocaust are never easy reads but they are necessary ones if we are going to properly remember and honor the humanity of its victims. I was spellbound by this book. When I found out there was a new book by its author about one of the other characters in this book, Cilka, I put it on pre-order straight away. It’s now on my bedside table on my teetering TBR pile and I can’t wait to get to it.

The Gown by Jennifer Robson had been on my TBR stack since picking it up at the Tucson Book Festival in the spring and I’d been wanting to get to it since then. I loved the miniseries The Crown and have pretty much been a UK royalty-watcher since the early days of Princess Diana. (Side note: When we lived in England in the late 80s/early 90s I used to imagine that I’d be in London some afternoon and that I’d spy poor Di being hunted down by paparazzi and I would come to her aid and sneak her into my car and take her back to my house in Oxfordshire for a respite – like Hugh Grant does for Julia Roberts in Notting Hill – and we’d would laugh over American fig newtons I’d gotten at the commissary that we’d been able to dodge the wolves. That never happened of course). Jennifer’s book is so lovely, so well-researched and the writing is beautiful and oh, that cover! It’s a story about the wedding gown of Queen Elizabeth of course but it’s really a story about the women who embroidered it.  A great book.

Lastly I read Lady Clementine by Marie Benedict – an early copy of it for endorsement, it’s coming in January – and was so enlightened and surprised by what I learned about Winston Churchill‘s wife. I’ve always known that behind a great man is usually a great woman, whether it be a wife, sister or mother or friend, and I loved hearing about the role Clementine played in Winston‘s life, especially at the most challenging moments, when the world was at war and Britain on the brink of occupation. If you like historical fiction that is based on biographical truth you will love this book as well.

So there you have it friends, a nice little recap long overdue and I hope to be able to return next week and regale you with more book recommendations for you. Have a wonderful weekend!

Ordinary Grace = extraordinary book

It’s been way too long since I’ve posted on the blog and I feel bad about that. The holidays, as they often do, got in the way of normal routines because I let them, and then in January, I began in earnest to write a new book – about which I will keep you in the loop in future posts – and I let that heady experience also keep me from feeding this blog on Fridays. I apologize.

But I’m back in the saddle today with a book recommendation. Last month (I have to say that because January is already GONE!) that I absolutely loved. Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger is a five-star book all the way around. The title was a new one for me and was the choice of one of the readers in the book club I am in. I was surprised – still am – I hadn’t heard of this novel because it is masterfully written and it has been out for several years.

The story is one of those where the narrator in midlife is looking back on his childhood and sharing about an experience that forever shaped him. It’s also set in Minnesota, which is where I lived for 13 years, and pretty much in the same area, so I could see, taste, touch, and feel nearly every scene. Frankie is the 13-year-old son of a small town Methodist minister. He has a younger brother, who, incidentally, was my favorite character because of his tender heart, funny lines, and aching vulnerability. Frank tells the story of a particular summer where death had hold on their little town, in many different ways – from the tragedy of a little boy playing too close to train tracks to suicide to a murder. It was a summer like no other for lots of reasons but certainly because life itself was being dealt a blow. And when life is dealt blow we who know that life is precious can’t fail to wonder what impact it will have on us. I hesitate to share more about the storyline because I do not want to spoil it for you. Suffice it to say I was compelled to keep reading, and I didn’t want it to end.

But I will leave you with a quote from the book that resonated with me and I still find it echoing in my mind weeks after having read the book. The scene takes place at a funeral and Frankie‘s father is giving the message. The community is reeling from so much loss of life and he offers this bit of comfort to all those who mourn:

“When we feel abandoned, alone, and lost, what’s left to us? What do I have, what do you have, what do any of us have left except the overpowering temptation to rail against God and to blame him for the dark night into which he’s led us, to blame him for our misery, to blame him and cry out against him for not caring? What’s left to us when that which we love most has been taken? I will tell you what’s left, three profound blessings. In his first letter to the Corinthians, Saint Paul tells us exactly what they are: faith, hope, and love. These gifts, which are the foundation of eternity, God has given to us and he’s given us complete control over them. Even in the darkest night it’s still within our power to hold onto faith. We can still embrace hope. And although we may ourselves feel unloved we can still stand steadfast in our love for others and for God. All this is in our control. God gave us these gifts and he does not take them back. It is we who choose to discard them.”

I’ve long known and loved the verse in the letter to the Corinthians Krueger references here, but I have never thought of those three graces – faith, hope, and love – that way; that they are ours to hold onto and ours to let go of, but that they can’t be stolen from us. Only abandoned by us. The thought still moves me. There were other portions of the book that were like this, deeply part of the story, but deeply relevant to our real lives outside the novels we read to escape them for a bit.

So there you have it. Good words to begin 2019 with. Highly recommend. Happy reading, folks…

 

A remarkable book for any age

sepetysWas there a time when Young Adult lit was truly only for young adults? I am beginning to think maybe there was but it only lasted five minutes. I’ve been wowed over the last few years by more YA titles than my chronological age should allow. Ruta Sepetys’ page-turner, SALT TO THE SEA, is apparently shelved in YA, though you need to know I read my mother’s copy (who is obviously at least two decades older than me!) and she loved this book just as much as I did.

It’s a hauntingly evocative, tender, moving, and remarkable story of four young people trying to survive the horrors of WW2. Told in four rotating viewpoints, Sepetys was nevertheless able to create the literary magic that makes the reader very okay with switching from one character’s head to another. You know those books with multiple points of view, where you really only care about two of the four and you race to get past the pages of the characters whose stories aren’t as compelling? This isn’t one of those books.

The story is all the more riveting because it’s based on a true-to-life disaster that, unless you’ve read the book, you’ve probably never heard of.

Here’s the premise from the back cover:

“Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets. Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.

As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.

Yet not all promises can be kept.

Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.”

Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys

Ruta Sepetys‘ Goodreads author page tells us that she was born into a family of artists, readers, and music lovers, and that she is drawn to stories of strength through struggle. Her award-winning debut novel, “Between Shades of Gray” was inspired by her family’s history in Lithuania and is published in 45 countries. Her second novel, “Out of the Easy” is set in the French Quarter of New Orleans in 1950, and “Salt to the Sea, which is her third novel, exposes one of the greatest hidden disasters of World War II.

It also says she lives  in a tree house in the hills of Tennessee!

I may not be a young adult, but I am also drawn to stories of “strength through struggle.” Isn’t that aptly descriptive of life itself at any age? Some days are easy and a wonderful, some are hard and harrowing — but all of our days make up our lives and thus make us who we are, at the age we are right now.

Highly recommended.

 

 

A story of love, loss, and courage

childrenWhen I began writing SECRETS OF CHARMED LIFE a couple years ago, I had only the vaguest of notions of how much London suffered during World War II. Here was a city teeming with civilians – mothers, pensioners, children too young to be evacuated or just plain not evacuated – and yet it was bombed as if it were a military fortress filled with soldiers. When ordinary people are thrust into such extraordinarily difficult circumstances, their best virtues and worst flaws will emerge, twinned and twisted, and sometimes hard to distinguish between. War reveals to us what we love and fear most.

I love what the back cover copy says about Chris Cleave’s EVERYONE BRAVE IS FORGIVEN, a novel I just finished reading, which is set during this time period:

“This dazzling novel dares us to understand that, against the great theater of world events, it is the intimate losses, the small battles, the daily human triumphs that change us most.”

I keep telling myself, “Okay. No more WW2 novels! Broaden your horizon! Read about something else!” And yet I keep getting pulled back to books with this setting. Chris’s new book, which earned a starred review in Publishers Weekly, is a gem, and written with such achingly beautiful prose, sometimes you can forget this is a book about what war does to people.  Several times I re-read a sentence just for the pleasure of tasting it again. All that said, it IS still a book about wartime decisions and the characters who must make them. The plot centers on three Londoners, Mary, Thomas and Alistair, and how the war orchestrates the choices they make. It is loosely based on love letters between Chris’s grandparents. You can read more about the premise here.

The beauty in this book is not so much the story, but how the story is told, with delicious prose, cleverly placed humor, and a quiet urgency. It’s different than THE NIGHTINGALE and ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE, recent WW2 favorites of mine (and surprisingly also with lovely blue covers); it’s a little more Dickensy, as one reviewer suggested, but the wordsmithing here is golden. It’s one of those books that makes you ponder not just “what does this story mean?” but also, “what does this story mean to me?”

I’d read it again. A great book for book clubs. 4.5 stars

 

 

Yay for page-turners

thehusbI’ve been hungry for that kind of novel that calls out to you from the nightstand all throughout the day, teasing you to drop off working a little early so that you can open it up and continue where you left off the night before. My work office is my home so my current read is never more than a flight of stairs and a hallway away. After a couple of less-than-compelling books, I was very glad to get caught up in Liane Moriarty’s THE HUSBAND’S SECRET this past week.

I didn’t know much about the novel beforehand, just that it had rave reviews, lots of book clubs were reading it, and my agent said it was fabulous. I purposely didn’t read the back cover copy — which I find sometimes gives too much away. I was immediately drawn in to these three women and their seemingly separate stories. I knew somehow Tess and Rachel and Cecelia would collide on the pages and it was deliciously compelling to wonder how.

Here’s as much as I want to tell you about it. This is from the back cover:

“My darling Cecilia, if you’re reading this, then I’ve died…

Imagine that your husband wrote you a letter, to be opened after his death. Imagine, too, that the letter contains his deepest, darkest secret—something with the potential to destroy not just the life you built together, but the lives of others as well. Imagine, then, that you stumble across that letter while your husband is still very much alive. . . .”

I won’t say more about the plot because if you decide to read it, it’s best – I think – to just go in ready to be told a story about flawed people trying to hang onto normal when everything around them is tilting.

Entertainment Weekly says THE HUSBAND’S SECRET is “emotionally astute, immensely smart, and cinematically plotted.” I agree. I can see this one being adapted for the big screen. My book club is reading it next, and I know it will lead to a great discussion. Characters making choices when there is a moral dilemma involved always makes for a lively book club chat.

I’m happy to already have Liane’s BIG LITTLE LIES ready to read. My mom – a voracious reader – says it’s terrific.

But first, my second book club (so, yeah, I’m in two) is reading Lisa Wingate’s THE SEAKEEPER’S DAUGHTERS and I’ll be starting that tonight.

Have you read Liane Moriarty? What did you think?

Know someone who speaks Norwegian?

Good Tigerforlagetcovermorning, dear reading community!

I’ll get right to the point. I’ve four copies of SECRETS OF A CHARMED LIFE translated into Norwegian that I would love to give away to four readers who speak that language.

Do you have a friend or family member who would love to read this book in their mother tongue? Or maybe you’re learning Norwegian and need to read novels to familiarize yourself with the finer details. Respond below with a comment that you want your name in the hat and I will have random.org draw four winners on Sunday, February 21. I can sign and send the book to anyone in the US or Canada. If your Norwegian-speaking loved one lives in Norway or elsewhere abroad, it will be up to you to get the book to him or her, but I am happy to send to Aunt Asbjørg if she lives in the US/CAN.

These are beautifully crafted, hardcover books and they would love to be read! Good luck and have a great weekend!

 

Amazed by A House in the Sky

houseintheskyAwhile back, when the book Unbroken first came out, I told my husband that I wanted to read it because I loved Seabiscuit and I knew what an amazing writer Laura Hillenbrand was. I didn’t know much about Louie Zamperini (sad to say) so I had not heard prior to this the depths of his suffering at the hands of cruel men. Bob read the book first, and then said something along the lines of, “So, Sue. This is no Seabiscuit.” The graphic details of Louie’s torture were all there on the pages of the book and he wanted me to know that. It is one thing to read a work of fiction and imagine the suffering of a certain character (like the mom in Room, for example). It’s quite another to read a piece of non-fiction and have to wrestle with the ponderous truth that everything you are reading is real. It happened.

What kept me reading A House in the Sky (other than it was my book club’s pick) was knowing that Canadian journalist Amanda Lindhout survived the hell she was thrust into when she was kidnapped in Mogadishu and held for ransom for more than a year. I knew she survived because she co-wrote her story. Several times in the reading I found myself turning the book over to its backside to look at her beautiful author photo. You can’t write about an experience after the fact if you’re dead. When the telling got really hard to read, I’d remind myself, She lives, she lives, she lives.

I honestly don’t think I could have coped the way she she did. When I wasn’t stunned by the cruelty of her captors, I was stunned by her ability to hang on to hope. Hope is one of those invisible weights that we can only lift if we summon enough strength to do so. The harder the situation, the heavier it is to hold. Despair is easier. Despair is heavy, too. But it just overtakes you. You don’t have to do anything but lie there and let it fall.

So how did Amanda Lindhout keep hold of hope when despair was just waiting to devour her? She built a place in her mind to keep it. A place her brutal captors could not see and could not enter.

She built with her mind — the only thing she had left — a secret place for hope to hide. And it was this secret place that existed in her imagination that got her through the darkest days; days when I would have long given up.

She built a house in the sky.

This book is powerfully written and unforgettable.  But it is no easy read.  It is no Seabiscuit.

I still haven’t read Unbroken.

 

Not your average mystery

gone-girl-book-cover-medI love a good mystery. Mysteries and me go way back. All the way back to adolescence and Nancy Drew.  I like trying to figure out whodunit before I get to the end of the book and I am always as thrilled as I am disappointed when I’ve gotten it wrong.

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is quite possibly the most cleverly constructed mystery I’ve ever read.  It’s more than a mystery actually. It’s a study in human character, a look into the mind of a flawed genius.

Tana French, New York Times bestselling author of Into the Woods said of it: “Gone Girl is one of the best—and most frightening—portraits of psychopathy I’ve ever read. Nick and Amy manipulate each other—with savage, merciless and often darkly witty dexterity. This is a wonderful and terrifying book about how the happy surface normality and the underlying darkness can become too closely interwoven to separate.”

It’s hard to get wonderful and terrifying in the same sentence when you’re talking about a book.  But I would concur.  The writing is masterful, the plot is psychologically chilling.

The premise of Gone Girl is this:  “On a warm summer morning in North Carthage, Missouri, it is Nick and Amy’s fifth wedding anniversary. Presents are being wrapped and reservations are being made when Nick Dunne’s clever and beautiful wife disappears from their rented McMansion on the Mississippi River. Husband-of-the-Year Nick Dunne isn’t doing himself any favors with cringe-worthy daydreams about the slope and shape of his wife’s head, but hearing from Amy through flashbacks in her diary reveal the perky perfectionist could have put anyone dangerously on edge. Under mounting pressure from the police and the media—as well as Amy’s fiercely doting parents—the town golden boy parades an endless series of lies, deceits, and inappropriate behavior. Nick is oddly evasive, and he’s definitely bitter—but is he really a killer? As the cops close in, every couple in town is soon wondering how well they know the one that they love. With his twin sister Margo at his side, Nick stands by his innocence. Trouble is, if Nick didn’t do it, where is that beautiful wife? And what was left in that silvery gift box hidden in the back of her bedroom closet?”

The trailer for the movie looks wonderfully terrifying, as it were. My book club and I are already planning to go see it and then come come home to our normal lives and thank God in heaven none of us are married to a genius psychopath. If you read the book, be prepared for pervasive language. If you’re easily offended, it’s not the book for you.  I leave with the trailer so you can see for yourself hints of what the story on film will look like. It releases the first part of October. I am most interested to see how the screenplay will let us get into the heads of these characters. It was their inner thoughts that were most amazingly shocking. If you’ve read it, I’d like to hear what you thought…

 

Friday book recommendation

Still Alice coverI, like perhaps many others, have a mental list of a few of the ways I don’t want to Go Out.

I don’t want to be eaten by a shark. I don’t want to be inside a burning house. I don’t want to be buried in alive. I don’t want to drown. And I don’t want to slowly disappear courtesy of Alzheimer’s.

I really am not afraid of death, it’s the dying part that scares me. And to have my mortal life taken from me as slowly as Alzheimer’s does it? That is something I hope is not in my future.   Even so, I do recommend Lisa Genova’s stunning novel, STILL ALICE, about a brilliant university professor who is diagnosed with this disease. The story reads like the woman’s memoir; as if you are right there inside a mind that is slowly erasing itself.

The book is also being made into a movie with Julianne Moore staring in the title role. Filming began just a few months ago so the release is a ways off yet, but I am looking forward to seeing it, even though it will surely have a Jaws-like effect on me. If you’ve seen the movie Jaws – and really, who hasn’t? – then you will know what I mean about seeing a movie and wanting that to never, ever to happen to you.

Interestingly enough, Lisa is a Harvard-trained neuroscientist, not a writer. She self-pubbed STILL ALICE and  sold it out of the trunk of her car for almost a year before it was bought at auction by Simon & Schuster. It has gone on to win the 2008 Bronte Prize, was nominated for 2010 Indies Choice Debut Book of the Year, and spent over 40 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. It has been translated into 25 languages. That it resonates with people is an understatement. None of us wants to feel ourselves being subtracted from life bit by agonizing bit.

Two of my favorite parts:

“You’re so beautiful,” said Alice. “I’m afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are.”
“I think that even if you don’t know who I am someday, you’ll still know that I love you.”
“What if I see you, and I don’t know that you’re my daughter, and I don’t know that you love me?”
“Then, I’ll tell you that I do, and you’ll believe me.”

***

“I have no control over which yesterdays I keep and which ones get deleted. This disease will not be bargained with. I can’t offer it the names of the US presidents in exchange for the names of my children. I can’t give it the names of state capitals and keep the memories of my husband.
…My yesterdays are disappearing, and my tomorrows are uncertain, so what do I live for? I live for each day. I live in the moment. Some tomorrow soon, I’ll forget that I stood before you and gave this speech. But just because I’ll forget it some tomorrow doesn’t mean that I didn’t live every second of it today. I will forget today, but that doesn’t mean that today doesn’t matter.”

This book will make you fall to your knees in gratitude that you can remember the why of everything that matters to you.