Category: books

Six novels about children thrust into an adult world

The footage we’ve been seeing the last few days of the children in Afghanistan is breaking my mother-heart, and like so many of us here in the West, I am aching to do more for them than merely pray for their safety and rescue. I am a firm believer in prayer, but I also believe we are often able to participate in the answer to those prayers if we look for the avenues after we rise from our knees. More about that at the end of this post.

Those kids in Afghanistan, all of them born during this last stretch of freedom years when, among other things, all of them could attend school, are now living in an inverted world from the one they’ve always known. They’ve been thrust into a situation that is not of their making, one imposed on them and too many of them will have to find a way to be as brave and wise and resilient as people much older.

I am always moved and crushed and inspired by stories, real and imagined, about children who should be able to be what they are – children – but instead are compelled to navigate the complex and often scary world of adults. I was reminded today of the many novels I have read where this theme runs through the pages. I offer them here as a list for your own reading and would love to hear which books you would add to it.

THIS TENDER LAND by William Kent Krueger  is one of my favorite reads from the year 2020. Krueger’s style is impeccable and his novels never fail to impress. He is a true wordsmith and painter of stories. This novel is about four orphan vagabonds who “journey into the unknown, crossing paths with others who are adrift, from struggling farmers and traveling faith healers to displaced families and lost souls of all kinds.” It’s been described as enthralling, bighearted epic “that shows how the magnificent American landscape connects us all, haunts our dreams, and makes us whole.” Highly recommend. And if you love this one, you will gobble up ORDINARY GRACE, an earlier title of his.

ORPHAN TRAIN was my first Christina Baker Kline novel and even all these years later, I still can remember how this story broke me and yet made me stronger. Here is a dual time line story of two women: one, a teenager about to age out of the foster care system, and the other, an elderly woman who’d been orphaned as a child and was put on a train to the Midwest with “hundreds of other children whose destinies would be determined by luck and chance.” It is not easy to read what happens to the young girl who will become the old woman who will change this troubled teen’s life but easy books usually don’t stay with me. I am typically not inspired or changed by them. Books that work their way into my soul leave their mark. This one did that.

BEFORE WE WERE YOURS by Lisa Wingate  is one of those books that made me want to reach back into the past and pull the children – real ones – caught up in the actual scheme that forms the premise of this novel out of that hell and into the present where I could protect them. Would I know exactly how to do that? Well, maybe not, but I wouldn’t rest until I’d exhausted every effort. This is a dual timeline tale, but it’s the part in the past that had my mother-heart writhing. From the publisher: “Wrenched from all that is familiar and thrown into a Tennessee Children’s Home Society orphanage, the Foss children are assured that they will soon be returned to their parents—but they quickly realize the dark truth. At the mercy of the facility’s cruel director, Rill fights to keep her sisters and brother together in a world of danger and uncertainty.” Lisa is a master at the craft of storytelling. Her prose is evocative and rich, even when it’s breaking your heart.

WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING by Delia Owens  After having been on the NY Times bestseller list for two years there probably isn’t a soul reading this blog post who hasn’t read this book, so I probably don’t have to say too much about it! I will say I was moved by this novel and its young protagonist’s journey. The publisher describes the book this way: “Owens juxtaposes an exquisite ode to the natural world against a profound coming of age story and haunting mystery. Thought-provoking, wise, and deeply moving, Owens’s debut novel reminds us that we are forever shaped by the child within us, while also subject to the beautiful and violent secrets that nature keeps.” Looking forward to the screen adaptation of this one!

THE KITE RUNNER by Khaled Hosseini was the first of his that I read and I became an immediate devotee of his writing style. And in these days of ours I am thinking I might re-read it, and his stellar A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS – both are set in Afghanistan. From the publisher: “The unforgettable, heartbreaking story of the unlikely friendship between a wealthy boy and the son of his father’s servant, The Kite Runner is a beautifully crafted novel set in a country that is in the process of being destroyed. It is about the power of reading, the price of betrayal, and the possibility of redemption; and an exploration of the power of fathers over sons—their love, their sacrifices, their lies. A sweeping story of family, love, and friendship told against the devastating backdrop of the history of Afghanistan over the last thirty years.” Again, not an easy read. For some readers, there may be triggers within the pages. But so impactful and memorable.

THE LAST YEAR OF THE WAR  I end this list of six titles with one of my own. I had no idea until 2015 that during WW2, hundreds of interned German-American immigrants and their American-born children were repatriated to Germany in secret prisoner exchanges during the height of the Allied invasion. Reading about what it was like for these children to be thrust into the maelstrom of war was chilling. I imagined a story about a young teenage girl experiencing what dozens upon dozens of actual American children actually did experience. The Last Year of the War is the story of an Iowa-born teenager, imprisoned with her family at a Texas internment camp, and then sent to her German immigrant parents’ home country – a place she’s never been where a language she has never spoken is spoken and where Americans are the enemy – and at a time when Germany is being bombed every night by Allied forces. It’s a story about identity, loyalty, friendship, and resilience. And based on actual events.

I could add so many more to the list including ALL THE LIGHT WE CANNOT SEE by Anthony Doerr, and THE LANGUAGE OF FLOWERS by Vanessa Diffenbaugh, as well as nonfiction works like THE DIARY OF A YOUNG GIRL by Anne Frank and THE GLASS CASTLE by Jeanette Walls. But all lists must come to an end! Plus I would love to hear what books about children thrust into situations that many adults would struggle to handle have impacted you the most.

And if you are wondering like I am about what more I can do for the young ones in Afghanistan, a fellow author, Nadia Hashimi, has curated a list of aid organizations already in place to and support the Afghan refugee crisis. The Google doc is accessible via a link on her Instagram profile: https://www.instagram.com/nadiahashimibooks/. If you are not on Instagram, one of the places on her list is Doctors Without Borders. Here is the direct link to what they are doing in Afghanistan. https://www.doctorswithoutborders.org/what-we-do/countries/afghanistan

 

 

Thoughts on Migrations…

I was swept away by the utterly beautiful writing within the pages of MIGRATIONS by Charlotte McConaghy. Even though at its heart this is a book about a tragic woman’s consuming sorrow and relentless regrets, it was nonetheless a gorgeous and compelling read that I couldn’t wait to get to at the end of the day. And remarkably enough, it has wholly satisfying ending.

The book is about a woman desperate to track the migration of the last known Arctic terns. She is in our world, but a dystopic version of it where all of the animal species are becoming extinct. Frannie enlists the crew of a fishing vessel to aid her on her quest, a crew that is already at odds with a society that does not want them yanking from the sea the last of the fish. But she needs this captain and its crew to take her from one pole of the earth to the other as she follows the migration of these resilient birds.

From the get-go it is easy to see that the book is really not about the migration of these birds but rather the migrations a person makes within his or her life as they travel through it, from one end to the other. It might take a little bit of a mental leap to believe that our collective mishandling of the earth has caused the animal species to become extinct, but for me the book was not first and foremost a treatise on environmentalism. It really was, again for me, a book about a singular woman whose heart aches to get back what she lost, get back what she tossed away, get back what was taken from her. A broken planet provided the backdrop for this story to be told. Readers can take away from the setting what they are willing to, as we always do. It was the writing that kept me spellbound, not the rhetoric. Here are just a few gems from within the pages.

“There are two worlds. One is made of water and earth, of rock and minerals. It has a core, a mantle and a crust, and oxygen for breathing. The other is made of fear.”

And

“I lie in the sea and feel more lost than ever, because I’m not meant to be homesick, I’m not meant to long for the things I have always been so desperate to leave. It isn’t fair to be the kind of creature who is able to love but unable to stay.”

The author is based out of Sydney, Australia, and this book is her US debut. Prior to MIGRATIONS, McConaghy wrote young adult science fiction. I read in an article in the LA Times about MIGRATIONS that McConaghy knew “the novel’s harsh reality needed to be tempered with luminous prose and a muscular grip on plot that keeps the frigid pages flying. And, perhaps most important, there is hope. Hope is the ultimate balm – and catalyst.”

I would heartily agree with this assessment, that it’s hope that keeps you turning pages, hope that satisfies you at the end of them.

It’s a five-star read for me. Highly recommend.

Thoughts on The Vanishing Half

Often when I begin to read the book that everyone is talking about I find myself dealing with expectations that are just too high.  The annoying result of having expectations that are too lofty is failing to enjoy the book as much as I probably would have if I had heard nothing about it. It’s happened more than once, sadly. Maybe this has happened to you, too?

That is not the case with THE VANISHING HALF by Brit Bennett. I finished it last night when the house was asleep (anyone else dealing with pandemic insomnia?!) and hated to see it end. The characters are that richly drawn and the writing is that good.

The premise alone is at once intriguing. Just now as I tried to think of words to describe it, the right words failed me, so I am cheating here and giving you the publisher’s excellent description.

The Vignes twin sisters will always be identical. But after growing up together in a small, southern black community and running away at age sixteen, it’s not just the shape of their daily lives that is different as adults, it’s everything: their families, their communities, their racial identities. Many years later, one sister lives with her black daughter in the same southern town she once tried to escape. The other secretly passes for white, and her white husband knows nothing of her past. Still, even separated by so many miles and just as many lies, the fates of the twins remain intertwined. What will happen to the next generation, when their own daughters’ storylines intersect?

Weaving together multiple strands and generations of this family, from the Deep South to California, from the 1950s to the 1990s, Brit Bennett produces a story that is at once a riveting, emotional family story and a brilliant exploration of the American history of passing. Looking well beyond issues of race, The Vanishing Half considers the lasting influence of the past as it shapes a person’s decisions, desires, and expectations, and explores some of the multiple reasons and realms in which people sometimes feel pulled to live as something other than their origins.

As with her New York Times-bestselling debut The Mothers, Brit Bennett offers an engrossing page-turner about family and relationships that is immersive and provocative, compassionate and wise.

I was spellbound by Ms. Bennett’s quiet and yet compelling storytelling. Hers is the kind of writing I want every novel I read to sound like. Every novel I write to sound like. It’s beautiful without being pretentious or melodramatic or stilted. And her pacing and timing is perfect.

One bookseller said this about it: “A page-turner—yes. Lyrical—yes. A sharp depiction of the brutal effects of racism and colorism on families and communities, an exploration of what it means to choose—or refuse—an identity, and a delicate, nuanced, fierce prose that probes at the bond between twins and the cascade of events that pour through their separate lives after one twin vanishes from the other—yes, yes, and yes. Bennett’s writing is clear and swift, and I could live in it forever.”

I couldn’t have said it better. If you’re on Facebook and want to hear Brit Bennett in conversation with some very good author friends of mine, hop on to the Friends and Fiction group page and get connected there so that you watch the Nov 4 Wednesday night show with Ms. Bennett as the special guest. And as an aside, Friends and Fiction is a great place to hang out every Wednesday night, actually. I’ve enjoyed all the interviews. (If you want to hear one of my favorites, check out the one with Elizabeth Berg!)

I would love to hear your thoughts on the book if you’ve read it! Have a lovely weekend, friends…

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!

Escape to Camelot

I am so pleased to take a break from all things virus and chat with my fellow Berkley author, Stephanie Marie Thornton, about her brand new book, AND THEY CALLED IT CAMELOT, a story about the enigmatic Jackie Kennedy Onassis. Read to the end to see how to get in on a signed copy! Grab a cuppa and get cozy!

Stephanie, Jackie O seems to permanently reside in our hearts and curiosities, but what inspired you specifically to write a novel about her life and legacy?

As a high school history teacher, I had always associated Jackie with her iconic pink suit and the photograph of her scrambling over the back of the Lincoln Continental limousine moments after JFK had been shot. However, as I began researching her as the potential subject of a novel, I realized that so much of her personal story has been forgotten in the decades since her death. This was a woman who endured so much struggle and loss—most especially the assassination of her husband before her very eyes—and yet, she became the icon for everything that was poised and graceful. While there are countless biographies about Jackie, I wanted to reimagine what it was like to be her, to let readers experience her life unfolding through her own eyes.

So what do you think made her both an icon and turned her into an American legend?

At the heart of Jackie’s legend was her love of everything that is beautiful and cultured. She had a bit of a Midas touch about her, and used that magic to transform not just the role of First Lady—a position that had typically been held by much older (and less fashionable) women—but also that of the entire American presidency. There’s a reason that the JFK White House years are called Camelot—it was a time where men dared to dream big while dancing with beautiful women—and that was due in large part to Jackie’s influence. She was already an icon during her husband’s administration, but it was his assassination that turned her into a legend. The images of Jackie’s pink suit in that Dallas motorcade and as a black-draped widow holding her children’s hands during JFK’s funeral procession are forever seared onto America’s collective memory.

What kind of research did you do to write AND THEY CALLED IT CAMELOT? 

To start, I read what feels like every biography ever published about Jackie, the Kennedy family, Aristotle Onassis, and also the Bouviers. I was also fortunate to catch the Portland Historical Society’s High Hopes exhibit about JFK’s path to the presidency as well as making numerous trips to Washington, D.C. to visit the Smithsonian and Arlington. Finally, a trek to the JFK Presidential Library provided me with many more historical details.

And with all that research in mind, what was the most intriguing fact you discovered about Jackie O?

We’ve all seen images of Jackie in Dallas in the back of the Lincoln Continental limousine and then wearing her blood-spattered pink suit standing next to Lyndon Johnson while he took the oath of office on the day that JFK was assassinated—it’s impossible to truly imagine how horrific that day was for Jackie. However, one thing I didn’t realize until I started researching is that Jackie—and not Bobby’s wife Ethel or even his mother, Rose Kennedy—was the family member who signed the consent forms to terminate Bobby’s life support after he was shot at the Ambassador Hotel during his primary campaign. It seemed to me further proof of Jackie’s deep well of strength—that this woman who had survived so much—was able to muster the courage to face so many tragedies.

You’re right. I hadn’t known that fact. Surprising and moving. What do you hope readers will take away after reading And They Called It Camelot?

My greatest hope is that readers take away a deep admiration for the woman that was Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. So many of Jackie’s great personal accomplishments—including her renovation of the White House and preservation of Grand Central Station in New York—have been forgotten, but this was a First Lady who left a beautiful mark on our country and who was revered around the world. Jackie’s grace, poise, and strength made her into a true American legend, and I hope readers close the book with a sense of awe over the life she lived.

 

Susan here again:

Thanks so much for stopping by, Stephanie. Always a treat to chat with my fellow Berkley gals. Friends, if you’d like to get in on an opportunity to receive a free copy of this gorgeous novel, just comment below by noon Tuesday (St. Patrick’s Day, a fitting close to the drawing) and I will have random.org draw a winner. Would love to hear your thoughts on what you know about this extraordinary woman.

Have a safe and quiet weekend, folks. Wash your hands, be kind to one another, read books. They are virus-free!

Coming in 2020!

I have mentioned this before, but one of the sweetest things about having the novel-writing gig is the opportunity to read advance review copies of novels-to-come with an eye to providing an endorsement. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve read two ARCs that I just loved and I know you will too; both are headed your way in mid 2020.

So here on this last Friday of 2019 I will tell you about both. These two novels will be coming your way from my own publishing house, Berkley, but I would’ve loved them no matter whose imprint is on the spine. Truly.

First up, THE PRISONER’S WIFE by Maggie Brookes. It’s a debut novel and inspired by a true events that are simply amazing. It’s a tale about a secret marriage between a British soldier in occupied Czechoslovakia and a Czech farm girl. On the run after their elopement, the soldier evades capture for as long as he can but Nazi soldiers eventually find him – and his new wife. But the farm girl, Izabel, has disguised herself as a young British soldier made mute by shell shock. The couple are believed to be two escaped British soldiers and are sent to a men’s POW camp. The rest of the story is about Bill and Izzy’s bravery, cunning, and care for the other POWs in their block (and their care for her), and of course the remarkable resiliency of the human spirit which so often shows up in World War 2 novels. But this is a story you have not heard before and the way in which it is told will have you thinking you are there, facing every obstacle large and small that Izzy and the others face. Devastatingly rich in sensorial detail, it is described by Berkley as a story of “love and survival against the darkest odds.” The fact that the premise is based on a real woman who disguised herself as a man to not only be with her husband but to escape the executioner – as such was the punishment for aiding a POW in an escape – makes it a compelling read to the last page. Look for this one in May 2020. (Note: There’s currently a giveaway of 100 ARCs on Goodreads! Enter before Jan 9)

Maggie Brookes is a British ex-journalist and BBC television producer turned poet and novelist. The Prisoner’s Wife is based on an extraordinary true story of love and courage,  that was told to her by an ex-WW2 prisoner of war. Maggie visited the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany during the research for the book, where she learned largely forgotten aspects of the war. I hope our IRL paths cross someday soon.

Secondly, I was so glad to be invited to read my good friend Chanel Cleeton’s upcoming THE LAST TRAIN TO KEY WEST, after loving WHEN WE LEFT CUBA and NEXT YEAR IN HAVANA. I knew Chanel would be taking the reader on a different journey with a trio of unrelated POV characters and I couldn’t wait to see how the separate stories of these three different women would collide. I was thoroughly satisfied with the weave of three story threads!  As a backdrop, Chanel chose Henry Flagler’s legendary Overseas Railroad and one of the worst hurricanes in history which pummeled the Keys on Labor Day weekend in 1935. Helen is a Key West native trapped in an abusive marriage; Elizabeth, who is engaged to marry a man she does not love, is looking for her emotionally wounded WW1 veteran brother hiding out somewhere on the Keys; and Mirta, a newlywed in an arranged, post-Cuban-revolution marriage to benefit her Havana family, is on Key West for her honeymoon. The three female characters are compelling figures, each in her own way, and the setting details are engrossing to say the least. The impact on humanity from this 1935 hurricane is astounding, and it’s always fitting for a great story to be told to remember a time such as this. Chanel does it masterfully. Her new book will be in bookstores in June 2020. (There’s a Goodreads ARC giveaway for this one right now, too!)

Besides being a sweet friend and Berkley chum, Chanel is the New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of a Reese Witherspoon Book Club pick! (Next Year in Havana) Originally from Florida, Chanel grew up on stories of her family’s exodus from Cuba following the Cuban Revolution. She has a bachelor’s degree in International Relations and a master’s degree in Global Politics from the London School of Economics & Political Science. Chanel also received her Juris Doctor from the University of South Carolina School of Law. On top of all that, she is a fabulous writer.

I know it seems like a long way off, but you know how quickly time passes, my friend. Put these on your WANT TO READ Goodreads list and before you know it, the warmer months will be here and you’ll be able to read them!

Have a lovely weekend, full of relaxed reading…

 

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!

Friday Book News

I have, admittedly so, been very BAD about feeding this blog. I walked into it this morning to its emaciated form and it asked me who I was. Yikes. I take full responsibility for creating this blog child and then neglecting it, but I also know that YOU know that life can get really busy really fast. And also, sometimes I just don’t think I have anything important to say.

I have realized though, though I always have something to say about books. Always. I am always either writing one, researching one, reading one or buying one. So my new plan is to pop in every Friday and share any book news here that I think would be of interest. Sometimes I’ll talk about what I’ve read or am reading or want to read, sometimes what I am researching, sometimes what my author friends are working on and always any good deals or giveaways you will want to know about.

What I read last week:

WOMAN IN THE WINDOW by A. J. Finn is a page-turner a la GIRL ON A TRAIN. Here we have an agoraphobic woman who sees something terrible happening at her neighbor’s house through her window but she can’t prove it happened. And who’s going to believe this child-therapist-turned-nutcase-agoraphobe who drinks too much? I gave it 4 stars leaning toward 4.5 because it was definitely compelling. There were a few bits that I couldn’t quite fully embrace, but if you want suspenseful entertainment, this will deliver.

If you’re thinking you don’t want to read another GIRL ON THE TRAIN book, here’s Finn describing how his take is different. This article also states that Finn “was inspired to write THE WOMAN IN THE WINDOW after his own battles with severe depression…“I wanted to explore what I’ve been through,” he said. ‘Writing is a great way to guide this character through her own dilemma and bring her to a better place.'”

Here’s how Goodreads describes Finn’s book: “Anna Fox lives alone—a recluse in her New York City home, unable to venture outside. She spends her day drinking wine (maybe too much), watching old movies, recalling happier times . . . and spying on her neighbors. Then the Russells move into the house across the way: a father, a mother, their teenage son. The perfect family. But when Anna, gazing out her window one night, sees something she shouldn’t, her world begins to crumble—and its shocking secrets are laid bare. What is real? What is imagined? Who is in danger? Who is in control? In this diabolically gripping thriller, no one—and nothing—is what it seems.”

What I am reading now:

I’m just fifty pages into Georgia Hunter’s elegant and and stirring WE WERE THE LUCKY ONES. I had the pleasure of hearing her speak about this book when she was on tour for the paperback release. It has spent months upon months on the bestseller lists.  It was inspired by her own family history, unknown to her until she became an adult. Glamour magazine says of it: “Love in the face of global adversity? It couldn’t be more timely.”

Here’s how Goodreads describes this novel: It is the spring of 1939 and three generations of the Kurc family are doing their best to live normal lives, even as the shadow of war grows closer. The talk around the family Seder table is of new babies and budding romance, not of the increasing hardships threatening Jews in their hometown of Radom, Poland. But soon the horrors overtaking Europe will become inescapable and the Kurcs will be flung to the far corners of the world, each desperately trying to navigate his or her own path to safety.  As one sibling is forced into exile, another attempts to flee the continent, while others struggle to escape certain death, either by working grueling hours on empty stomachs in the factories of the ghetto or by hiding as gentiles in plain sight. Driven by an unwavering will to survive and by the fear that they may never see one another again, the Kurcs must rely on hope, ingenuity, and inner strength to persevere.  An extraordinary, propulsive novel, We Were the Lucky Ones demonstrates how in the face of the twentieth century’s darkest moment, the human spirit can endure and even thrive.”

I think this one is going to be a stunner.

Booky Stuff

So if you’re on Twitter, hop on today to the Atria Books profile and look for today’s (Friday’s) tweet regarding Nicole Baart’s newest book (she’s a phenomenal writer and a personal friend). If you retweet, your name will be in the hat for drawing of free copies of  YOU WERE ALWAYS MINE.

If you’re a reader of e-books, you will want to note that the masterful Julie Cantrell’s PERENNIALS (that cover is just so gorgeous) is currently just $1.99 on Kindle. Don’t know how long that deal will last so I’d hop on it if I were you. I nabbed it and it’s now on my e-TBR list as next up. She’s the NY Times bestselling author of INTO THE FREE and one of the nicest people you will ever know.

So, there you go, reading friends! A yummy little bit of books news and the blog’s been fed and I don’t feel quite so lame. Hope you have a great weekend and as always, I love hearing about you are reading!

 

A chat with novelist Catherine West

Today I’m happy to have as my guest, fellow novelist Catherine West to talk about her new book, WHERE HOPE BEGINS, which hits bookstore shelves tomorrow! Make sure you read to the end to see how to get in on the giveaway of a physical copy. Catherine writes women’s fiction for Harper Collins Christian Publishing and lives on the island of Bermuda. “We’re a British Colony, and I have to say, though I am biased,” Catherine says, “Bermuda is one of the most beautiful places in the world!” She’s married to a pediatrician, and they have two grown children, a son-in law, and soon to be daughter-in-law, and one adorable granddaughter. Their son and his fiancé are currently planning their 2019 wedding. And their third child, she says, is a border collie named Noah.

SUSAN: Welcome to blog, Catherine! How about we start with you telling us a bit about WHERE HOPE BEGINS?

CATHERINE: I would love to! This novel is really about so many things, grief and coping with loss, learning how to live through the unbearable, but it’s also about grace and love and forgiveness, and of course, hope. It’s the story of grace in the midst of brokenness, pointing us to the miracles that await when we look beyond our own expectations.The story deals with some heavy topics, adultery, loss of a child, suicide. Actually, this was a story I didn’t want to write. I really had little experience with any of the situations my characters have to deal with. But the story came to me one night, so clearly and vividly, that I felt very strongly it was something I had to write. And as soon as I began, the words flowed without stopping until I reached the end. It was weird. I’ve never had a writing experience like that before, and I doubt I will again. Just as I was getting near the end of the first draft, I got news that really clinched my belief that God had a purpose for this book. We found out that very close friends of ours were going to be separating. And shortly after that, another couple, same story. I knew then that I was writing this book for a reason, and any doubt I had about it fell away.

SUSAN: Those are some heavy issues! What made you decide to tackle them all in this particular story?

CATHERINE: While it’s true that there is a lot of heartache in the story, there’s also a lot of healing. Savannah’s journey is not easy, but it’s also filled with sweet and funny moments. There is laughter here, and the people she meets along the way are well worth the extra tissues one may need!

SUSAN: That’s good to hear! What would you say the story is about, in a nutshell?

CATHERINE: Savannah Barrington has always found solace at her parents’ lake house in the Berkshires, and it’s the place that she runs to when her husband of over twenty years leaves her. Though her world is shaken, and the future uncertain, she finds hope through an old woman’s wisdom, a little girl’s laughter, and a man who’s willing to risk his own heart to prove to Savannah that she is worthy of love. But soon, Savannah is given a challenge that she can’t run away from. Forgiving the unforgivable. Amidst the ancient gardens and musty bookstores of the small town she’s sought refuge in, she must reconcile with the grief that haunts her, the God pursuing her, and the wounds of the past that might be healed after all.

SUSAN: Do you have a favorite character in this novel?

CATHERINE: Of course, I think the obvious choice is Brock Chandler, but I’m going to say his great-aunt Clarice wins this one for me. She was probably the biggest surprise and she fairly stepped off the page from the moment she opened her front door to Savannah. I love her wisdom and truth-telling. I feel like she’d give the best hugs. We all need someone in our lives who’s not afraid to tell us the truth, even when it hurts. Clarice was just the person Savannah needed at that point in her life. I really had so much fun watching her character spring to life.

SUSAN: Your most recent novels have focused on the human family and all the dynamics that make up those relationships. Can you tell us a bit about why that theme resonates with you?

CATHERINE: While I have written romance in the past, I’m really most comfortable with family drama. Families can be so complicated. It’s really amazing to me that you can have all these people related by blood, yet all so very different. But the familial bond often, not always, overrides those differences. I love writing what I call “reality fiction.” Digging deep into those tough topics that we often want to ignore or brush aside because sometimes it’s too difficult. But life is hard. All of us are faced with struggles and situations that seem insurmountable. I think it’s really important to acknowledge that, and to realize that even in our darkest hours, we are never really alone. We are loved and cared for by an amazing God who will never abandon us. That’s really the crux of each story I write. While the faith message may be subtle, I don’t believe it’s one that can be ignored. Without hope, we have nothing. And that’s what I like my characters to eventually come around to. Most of them do.

SUSAN: I love that! “Without hope, we have nothing.” So what’s it like living on an island in the middle of the Atlantic?

CATHERINE: It’s different. I was born and raised on Bermuda, so it’s really home to me. We’re just a short flight from most major cities – Boston, New York, Atlanta, Toronto –  so it’s quite easy to travel, and I do, a lot. Bermuda is a relatively peaceful place. Our roads are small and the speed limit is 20 mph, though of course one rarely drives at that speed. It is beautiful, with turquoise waters, pink sand (it is actually, due to the coral reefs we have surrounding us), and flowers blooming all year long. There’s a quiet pace to life here that you won’t find in many places. We have no shopping malls or chain stores like Starbucks (sadly); most people do outdoorsy stuff like tennis and sailing and other water sports. We have great golf courses. And of course, the very best thing, no snow!!

SUSAN: Yes, I’ve done the snow thing. I know what you mean about living where there’s snow and where there isn’t. I miss the gently falling stuff, the bridal-white vistas, the sparkling beauty of snow in moonlight, but I don’t miss the black ice, the shoveling and the temps! Before we say goodbye, do you have any advice for aspiring authors out there?

CATHERINE: I think the biggest thing is to realize that there is much work to be done. I always stress how important it is to really hone your craft. Read all the books. Go to conferences and learn from others. Be teachable. I think we’re constantly learning, no matter what we’re focused on, writing, art, music, there’s always something new to uncover. Writing is a solitary occupation, and while it’s tempting (at least for me) to ferret away in your little hobbit hole, try and get out and meet people! Make friends with like-minded crazy people and you’ll have a community for life. It’s so important to have that support. Most of all, if you truly believe this is your calling, the path that God has set you on, don’t let go of that. It can be very discouraging to receive rejections when you’ve poured so much of yourself into something, but they’re all part of the process. Learn from them. And keep going. If it’s your dream, don’t give that up. You’ll get there!

SUSAN: Thanks stopping by, Catherine! Readers, if you would like to get your name in on the drawing (US winners only, sorry!) just answer this question and your name’s in the hat: Have you ever been to Bermuda? What did you like best about it? And if you haven’t, what do you think you’d like best about island living. Comment before midnight PST on Thursday, May 24. A winner will be announced on Friday. If you want stay connected to Catherine on Facebook, here is her author’s page: https://www.facebook.com/groups/702332983287917/

Have a great week everyone!

New from Katie Ganshert!

Dear friends, I am so happy to have fellow author Katie Ganshert in the bloghouse today. We’re going to be talking about her brand new nove, NO ONE EVER ASKED, which releases today! Make sure to read to the end so you can see how to enter the drawing for a copy of this timely novel. (So sorry that we can  only accommodate a winner with a US mailing address.)

SM: So, Katie. What is this book about in a nutshell?

KG: NO ONE EVER ASKED is a story about three very different women whose lives are brought together when an impoverished school district loses its accreditation and the affluent community of Crystal Ridge has no choice but to open their school doors. Camille Gray is the wife of a corporate executive, mother of three, and a long-standing PTO chairwoman. Jen Covington is a newly adoptive mom who’s struggling with a happily-ever-after so much more difficult than she anticipated. And Anaya Jones is the first woman in her family to graduate college and a brand new teacher at Crystal Ridge’s top elementary school, unprepared for the powder-keg situation she’s stepped into. It’s a story that explores the implicit bias impacting American society, and asks the ultimate question: What does it mean to be human?

SM: I love ultimate questions! I love it when they appear in subtle sentences in great novels. If someone asked you what does it mean to be human, how would you answer?

KG: Oh, man. There’s a myriad of answers to that question! I think in the context of this book, I would have two answers: to be human means to be made in the image of God. Which means that all of us–no matter our beliefs, our lifestyle choices, our political affiliations–have intrinsic value, and deserved to be treated as such. I would also say that to be human means to be complex, and that complexity is irrevocably shaped by our unique experiences.

SM: The book starts out with the startling observation that at the turn of the 21st century, education for black students was more segregated than in 1968. Wow. Tell us more.

KG: I did a lot of research for this book, probably more than all my others combined. Part of my research involved putting together a comprehensive timeline of events regarding school integration. At first glance, it doesn’t seem like that opening statement could possibly be true. 1968 was only eight short years after Ruby Bridges became the first African American child to integrate a white southern elementary school—an act that received so much violent backlash among white people that young Ms. Bridges had to be escorted into the building by U.S. marshals. But when you look at the entire chain of events, from Brown v. Board to now, it slowly becomes understandable. You can see how a string of policies and decisions have led to the situation we find ourselves in currently. I wanted to pull some of those timeline events into the story, even if only in a small way. So they show up as bites of information throughout, complimenting various plot points in the novel.

SM: One of your main characters adopts a girl from Liberia. Is your own adoption experience as a transracial family similar to Jen’s?

KG: a lot of similarities, and a lot of differences as well. We adopted our daughter when she was a couple months shy of three, which isn’t the same as adopting a seven-year old. Our daughter also has some very unique special needs, which make our stories quite different. A lot of the struggles Jen has with Jubilee (her daughter) aren’t the same struggles I’ve had with my daughter. What absolutely is similar, is the fact that we both struggled. I think this is true for many parents who adopt internationally—especially when that adoption takes a painfully long time. For so long, you are fervently praying for and dreaming about this child you don’t actually know. And then one day, this child you loved so desperately from afar is up close and personal, under your roof, and you are essentially strangers. Not only that, they are grieving the loss of so much, with very real trauma in their past, and that trauma doesn’t manifest itself in pleasant, lovely ways. There’s often this sense of guilt, too, because God just answered one of your most desperate prayers, so you should be filled with gratitude, right? And your story is so inspiring to the people on the outside looking in. But for most families, attachment takes time. It’s something you have to fight for. The days, weeks, months afterward can be very isolating. This is the piece of Jen’s story that is similar to my own. As well as the struggles that come with being a white mother to a black daughter—such as the learning curve that comes with hair care, or the desperation one feels to give their child mirrors (people in their life who look like them). Representation is so important. As a trans-racial family, you become quickly aware of how segregated we still are as a society.

SM: What does the title refer to in terms of the story (if it’s not a spoiler, of course)? What is it that no one ever asked and why does that matter?

KG: It’s a little bit of a spoiler. I’d rather the reader discover this as they read. I’ll just say that one character references the title first, but it’s not the last time the title is referenced. And when it’s referenced again, the title takes on a deeper meaning – or at least a broader one.

SM: What did you learn about yourself or others while writing this book?

KG: This story really brought home to me the fact that no one person, myself included, is all one thing or the other. All of us are complex people with complex histories and experiences, which indelibly shape the way we look at ourselves, others, and the world around us. I also learned that racism runs deep in the fabric of our society, and if we’re ever going to honestly address that, we have to be willing to listen to perspectives and experiences that are unfamiliar and different from our own.

SM: What do you hope your readers will come away with after reading NO ONE EVER ASKED?

KG: I don’t think there’s any one message I want readers to take away with them as much as I just want hearts to be impacted. I hope the last page of NO ONE EVER ASKED will find hearts softer than the first. I hope eyes will be opened, defensiveness will crumble, and ears more willing to listen.

SM: So what do you think people need to see more clearly and be more willing to listen to? What needs to change for that to happen?

KG: I think people need to see racial injustice more clearly, and I think they need to be more willing to listen to voices that haven’t historically been listened to (black voices, female voices, any voice that has been shoved off to the margins). I think we need to get more intentional, and humble. We need to set down our defensiveness. We need to be willing to consider that just because something isn’t a reality for us, doesn’t mean it’s not a reality for others. We also need to stop villainizing the “other”, whoever that “other” may be.

Susan here. Thanks, Katie, for a great interview! Readers, if you want  to keep in step with Katie, you can subscribe to her Stay in the Loop email list for all the latest news, as well as exclusive giveaways. You can sign up on Katie’s website, www.katieganshert.com.

And now for the giveaway! Just leave a comment below about why the premise of this book interests you and your name goes in the hat for a randomly-drawn winner of NO ONE EVER ASKED. Just be sure to comment before 11 AM Pacific on Friday. That’s when I will have random.org draw a winner. And just before we go, here’s a fabulous book trailer that sheds more light on Katie’s book and why she wrote it and why we should all read it: