Is your book club ready to try something different after another round of literary fiction? Tired of reading the same titles as every other book club in town? Branch out with one of these mystery and suspense picks for your next book club meeting. The books on our list were screened with these criteria in mind:
• Issues, characters and/or moral dilemmas worthy of group discussion • Suspense paired with great writing • Books that stand alone and don't require knowledge of earlier entries in a series • Recently (or soon-to-be) available in paperback
Book clubs will find plenty of fodder for discussion in Ephron's psychological thriller about two American couples whose Italian vacation dissolves into a swirl of acrimony and infidelity. Told in alternating viewpoints by the participants, Ephron's finely paced tale exposes some raw truths about betrayal and jealousy. A reading group guide is available online.
Creator of the FX television series "Fargo" and "Legion," Hawley won the 2017 Edgar Award for Best Novel for this riveting mystery about a plane crash off the coast of Martha's Vineyard that claims the lives of nine well-to-do passengers. Only two aboard survive: struggling painter Scott Burroughs and the 4-year-old son of a wealthy media titan. A reading group guide is included in the paperback edition.
Not your typical thriller, Winters' book tackles a deadly serious topic: America's legacy of slavery and the ways in which it still affects our culture. Described by the author as "an alternate history that wasn't alternate enough," this fast-paced novel depicts a present-day U.S.A. where slavery is legal in four states in the South. Victor, a black bounty hunter who tracks down escaped slaves, is on the trail of an escapee known as Jackdaw, and his pursuit will take many dramatic twists and turns.
Not a Soundby Heather Gudenkauf
Amelia Winn, the protagonist of this compelling novel, has two characteristics that distinguish her from run-of-the-mill mystery characters: She's a nurse, and she's deaf. Struck by a hit-and-run driver, Amelia loses her hearing—and her marriage—as a result of the crash. Two years later, as she attempts to rebuild her life, she finds the body of a fellow nurse in the river near her remote cabin. Gudenkauf, who is hearing-impaired, blends a straightforward and illuminating portrait of Amelia's disability into this riveting tale.
Optioned for film by Reese Witherspoon, Walker's novel has an intriguing concept: Jenny Kramer, the teenage victim of a brutal rape, is given a controversial drug that erases all her memories of the assault. The reaction of Jenny's parents to the crime, the treatment by her psychiatrist and the secrets that surface in her Connecticut hometown all offer rich areas for discussion by reading groups.
Though this is the fifth book in the Detective Alex Morrow series, newcomers should have no problem diving into this watery mystery by the masterful Scottish crime writer. Already under police surveillance for possible money laundering, Roxanna Fuentecilla disappears from her Glasgow home and turns up dead in the waters of Loch Lomond. Morrow's investigation will take her to the scenic seaside town of Helensburgh, which may harbor dark secrets beneath its quaint exterior. Mina's sharp writing and finely drawn characters have won her numerous awards and an international following.
Though we don't have the space to enumerate all the qualities that make Penny's Armand Gamache mysteries worth reading, two stand at the top of our list: the powerful writing and rich setting in the charming Quèbec village of Three Pines. In this outing, which earned a spot on several 2016 best books of the year lists (including our own), Gamache investigates the murder of a sadistic professor at the police academy. Discussions questions are included in the paperback edition.
Ware follows her hit debut, In a Dark, Dark Wood, with the gripping story of travel journalist Lo Blackstock, who thinks she's lucky to snag a press pass for a luxury cruise from London to Norway. The idyllic cruise takes a frightening turn on the first night when Lo hears a scream from the next cabin and then a loud splash. There's no sign of a crime, however, and ship security assures Lo that the cabin wasn't occupied. Book club topic number one: Are Lo's concerns overlooked because she's a woman with a history of anxiety and panic attacks? More questions are available in an online reading group guide.
Behind Closed Doorsby B.A. Paris
A handsome and successful English lawyer, Jack Angel shows admirable concern for domestic violence victims by representing battered women. But his personal life tells a different story: Jack's treatment of his wife, Grace, is cruel and deeply disturbing. After a whirlwind courtship and marriage, Grace has become virtually a prisoner in their home, not allowed any unsupervised contact with the outside world. As Grace prepares for the arrival of her sister, Minnie, who has Down syndrome, she's faced with a terrifying choice.
Hart, a talented writer who won back-to-back Edgar Awards for Down River and The Lost Child, covers thought-provoking territory in his latest thriller, his first in five years. Two powerful stories are interwoven here, both involving police officers: Det. Elizabeth Bank is under investigation after fatally shooting two black teens who were raping a white girl. Meanwhile, former policeman Adrian Wall is released from prison after serving 13 years for a murder he didn't commit. As you might expect from the book's title, the nature of redemption is one of the topics that should generate group discussion.
Is your book club ready to try something different after another round of literary fiction? Branch out with one of these mystery and suspense picks for your next book club meeting.
Inspired by a true story, Jamie Ford’s poignant new novel is framed by two world’s fairs held in Seattle—what the author calls the “metaphorical rocks” of his powerful tale. At the first fair in 1909, a real-life raffle was held to give away an orphaned baby, an event that both haunted Ford and piqued his curiosity.
He imagines what might have happened to that child in Love and Other Consolation Prizes, a riveting story that moves from heartbreak and poverty in turn-of-the-century Southern China to Seattle’s glittering 1962 world’s fair, the Century 21 Expo. The fair's opening day triggers painful memories for one attendee—a man named Ernest Young, who recalls a time when he fell in love with two girls and muses, “The present is merely the past reassembled.”
Your novel was inspired by an incident in which a baby was raffled off at the 1909 Seattle world’s fair. How and when did you become aware of this event? I remember watching a DVD in 2009 that was commemorating the 100-year anniversary of the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, Seattle’s forgotten world’s fair. (I know, I have weird viewing pastimes). The program was narrated by the actor Tom Skerritt, who casually mentioned that a boy was raffled off and that his name was Ernest, and a newspaper clipping flashed onscreen that read “SOMEBODY WILL DRAW BABY AS PRIZE.”
And just like that, I fell down the rabbit-hole. . . .
Even now, after reading the novel, it’s hard for me to believe that such a raffle happened in the U.S. just over a century ago. Were you similarly dumbstruck? What does this say about how much our culture has changed in the last century? Ironically, at Seattle’s second world’s fair (in 1962), a vendor gave away poodles––which was criticized for being inhumane. So as the philosopher, Robert Zimmerman, sang, “The times they are a-changing.”
And I wasn’t quite dumbstruck as much as consigned to the weirdness of history. Those early world’s fairs all had ethnographic exhibits, which were basically human zoos that featured “exotic” or indigenous people. The fact that a boy was raffled off seemed like an extension of that mindset.
Also, this didn’t just happen at world’s fairs. In the May 1920 issue of The Kiwanis Magazine there’s an article about the Asheville, North Carolina chapter: “One of their unique features was to auction off a real baby for adoption at a luncheon attended by the ladies.”
Strange days, indeed.
The description of 5-year-old Yung’s experiences aboard the ship to America are riveting and heartbreaking. Can you tell us a bit about how you researched this era and the activity of human smugglers? While doing research at the Anacortes Maritime Museum near Seattle, I learned that smugglers Ben Ure and Lawrence “Pirate” Kelly made their fortunes transporting immigrants, tied in burlap bags so that if customs agents were to approach, their human cargo could easily be tossed overboard. The tidal currents would carry the bodies of these discarded immigrants to a place now known as Dead Man’s Bay. There are probably happy people having picnics on that beach as I write this, who have no idea how the place earned its name.
I also looked at oral histories of some of the first immigrants from Southern China (where my great-grandfather immigrated from). I was trying to figure out why someone would put themselves at such risk on the high seas. It turns out many of those men and women didn’t have a choice—they were sold.
You write of young Ernest and the raffle: “His fate had been decided by this simple piece of cardboard.” Where do you fall on the fate vs. random chance continuum? Do you think our individual destinies are fated or dependent on chance and luck? The romantic in me desperately wants to believe in luck, or fate, or for lack of a better word—destiny. But the cynic in me worries that all of this is somewhat predetermined. You could argue that all human action is guided by external causality, which creates the narrow pathways in which we exist. When you’re bored and want to feel especially helpless, look up the philosophical idea of Determinism. Warning: It will break your brain.
“I’m not a bitter person in life. I don’t want to be a bitter author on the page. There’s no shame in happiness.”
Why did you choose to bookend your story with two world’s fairs, one in 1909 and the other in 1962? Do you see the fairs as turning points in Seattle’s history? I love the symmetry of showcasing Seattle’s two world’s fairs. But also, the fairs were snapshots of how the city (and the U.S.) presented itself to the world at large.
Both expositions focused on the latest technology, architecture, and what was happening in the arts. Both featured celebrities and politicians. But in looking at the fairgoers themselves, what amused them, what they celebrated, you get a marvelous anthropological glimpse at how we behaved. I guess you could say that both fairs were great for people-watching, even decades later.
You write of Ernest, “He suspected that everyone his age, of his vintage, had a backstory, a secret that they’d never shared.” Do you think such secrets are specific to his era and location? Or are they a broader part of the human experience? Oh, no. We all have secrets. I certainly do. But we’re always followed by the next generation (often our own children) who are obsessed with the future, not the past. So these secrets stay hidden.
I recently found out that my late mother had another child, who was given up for adoption. So I have a mystery sibling. I’ve heard that she’s a police officer in Vegas.
Go ask your parents their deepest, darkest secrets. Who knows what you’ll find.
How do you feel about Mrs. Irvine and how do you think readers will react to her character? Does she deserve any credit for trying to do what she thought was right? I think she’s a product of her time. That is to say, she means well, but she’s lacking in empathy. Like many good, well-meaning people in life, their Achilles heel is an inability to embrace the complexity of others. People are qualitative, not quantitative.
But, that’s just me. I’m a pretty emotive guy.
Your depiction of Gracie’s dementia is tender, even life-affirming. Do you have any family experience with this condition? I saw this to some degree with my Yin Yin and Yeh Yeh—my Chinese grandparents. My grandfather took care of my grandmother for a decade as her health slowly declined. It takes special dedication, and tenderness, to be that kind of caregiver.
And then I experienced it first-hand as I cared for my mother in hospice. When you meet fear and dread with love, because that’s all you have left, it changes you.
Early Asian-American life is a poignant theme in your works, and you’ve been compared to other Asian-American authors such as Amy Tan. How do you see yourself fitting in (or not fitting in) to a growing canon of Asian-American authors? I don’t know. Honestly, it’s not for me to decide, and I still have more books in me, so we’ll see what happens. I love historical fiction, but I’m open to all kinds of storytelling. Last year I published a few stories that were basically Asian-themed steampunk. And last week I had a crime noir tale published in an anthology. Oh, and I’m still working on a screenplay and a script for a graphic novel. Plus, there’s always a lot of really bad poetry leaking out of my brain.
Reviewers often remark that your books are hopeful or triumphant, an outlook that seems relatively rare in current fiction. Do you set out to write hopeful stories or do they develop organically as you write? I love redemptive stories. Not necessarily ones with perfect happy endings, with rainbows and unicorns, but I like to at least have a jumping-off point where characters can continue their journeys—if only in the imagination of readers.
It’s sad that stories of hope and redemption are sometimes seen as “less than literary,” as though every story needs to crush your soul to have creative merit.
I’ve never bought into that idea. I’m not a bitter person in life. I don’t want to be a bitter author on the page. There’s no shame in happiness.
Author photo by Alan Alabastro
Jamie Ford, whose new novel, Love and Other Consolation Prizes, is based on a haunting historical event, answers our questions about fate, family secrets and the rewards of writing redemptive fiction.
This BookPage Icebreaker is sponsored by Henry Holt
Heather Harpham’s compelling new memoir, Happiness: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After, reads almost like a suspenseful novel at times, with the unexpected turns readers expect to find in fiction, but rarely encounter in a true story. Just when you think you have a handle on what's happening—this is the story of a jilted woman, raising a child alone—another twist occurs and the narrative heads in a new direction.
At its core, Happiness is the story of a family dealing with a child’s life-threatening illness, but it’s also much more. It’s a sensitive portrayal of Harpham’s sometimes painfully fraught relationship with the child’s father, Brian; a tender look at female friendship; and a stirring chronicle of a mother’s devotion. The book captures the unique world of a pediatric bone marrow marrow transplant unit, where death hovers just around the corner. And the child at the center of the story, Gracie, will win your heart and have you yearning for a happy outcome to her harrowing medical ordeal.
We spoke to Harpham, an award-winning playwright and performer, from her home in New York’s Hudson Valley about her moving and beautifully written memoir.
Why did you choose the title Happiness? It seems at first like a strange choice for a book about a child’s illness. I’m so delighted to be asked that question! I chose Happiness because I felt it created a kind of instant tension which mimicked the kind of tension we actually lived in when Gracie was sick. What are the first two things you usually ask about a book: What’s it called? And what’s it about? If the answer to the first question is “happiness” and the [answer] to the next question is a sick child, there’s a tension between those two things.
What I’ve found is that happiness is embedded in all these nooks and crannies, even in a terrible time. I feel like moments of real stress, or even terror, also contain the possibility for very heightened awareness. You’re really paying attention because the stakes are high. And when you’re really paying attention, part of what you get to experience are the little joys, the little moments of grace that appear—your baby is sick and in an incubator but they’re gurgling at you, or they grasp your finger for the first time.
For me, the title Happiness encapsulates growth and contentment and also the sense that life is precious, but it’s fragile, not guaranteed. I don’t know if one word can do all that, but that’s what I was aiming for. And that’s also why we chose the subtitle: The Crooked Little Road to Semi-Ever After . . . You never know exactly where you’re going.
“You could have all those things checked off and still not have happiness if you’re not at rights with yourself and able to appreciate the daily pleasures, the little moments of true affection.”
How did your ideas about happiness change after you became the mother of a very sick child? Radically and almost instantly, in that it never once occurred to me [during pregnancy] that I would have a sick child. Never, not once! And when I shared that with Brian, he said he never once thought about it without worrying about what could go wrong! We were diametrically opposed. So I think what I learned about happiness is that it doesn’t arrive gift-wrapped in a particular package. You’re not happy because you can check all these items off the list: Yes, I have the right job. Yes, I have the right partner. Yes, I have the right house. Yes, my kid is perfect. You could have all those things checked off and still not have happiness if you’re not at rights with yourself and able to appreciate the daily pleasures, the little moments of true affection, interaction, humor.
When Gracie was born, it made me realize that happiness is more a product of internal awareness and willingness to appreciate what’s before you than it is the product of external circumstance.
How did you manage to reconstruct this story in such vivid detail several years after it happened? Well, it was hard. What I had were two sets of writing. When I was pregnant with Gracie and alone, and honestly very unhappy and mystified to be in such a different circumstance than I had imagined, I began writing letters to her. . . . Even though [my pregnancy] didn’t look like what I wanted it to, I was welcoming her. I wrote all these letters, and I would start them all, “Hello baby.” So I had this series of “hello baby” letters, and the most intense experiences are things I had captured there. And then I also had a Caring Bridge page, the writing I did when she was quite sick, in Durham.
And, you know, we’re a couple of writers, Brian and I! We write down the things the kids say that tickle us. It’s kind of what we do—if something happens, you write about it. We’re the kind of people who make notes along the way. Between my notes and his notes, I had a lot of original documents.
Your comments in the book about your relationship with Brian were raw and honest, and often very painful. How did you summon the courage to write about your relationship in such an open way? With help! I summoned the courage with the help and encouragement of a writing group I was part of that gave me the very useful advice to “write everything.” They said, “Just write it. You can go back and soften it or pull things out later, but write it.” And I did write it, and I did craft it, I did shape it. So as raw as it feels, it is the result of a process that Brian and I went through together of reading my portrayal of our relationship—his decisions, my feelings, his feelings—and talking it through. It was extremely important to me that Brian feel comfortable with everything I had to say, especially because the kids will read this book as adults. And because as the narrator, you have this unique power. You’re the one telling the story. I wanted that the power to be balanced with Brian’s point of view and his consent to how I was I describing our relationship.
We read it together very carefully. Sometimes we had to stop and talk things through. “I remember it this way. Well, I remember it that way.” Or he would say, “I was actually thinking or feeling something different from what you have here,” and we would adjust as needed. I was very clear that this was my book and I’m telling it through my point of view. But nevertheless it’s a permanent record that will be there for our kids to see, and it needed to feel right.
Ultimately I think it was quite meaningful and valuable for the two of us. It only brought us closer, going back through that time. Also, the act of writing actually did widen my perspective. I saw things from his point of view that I had never been able to see before. And I think that’s one of the great values of writing—that it asks you to look deeper or look wider. We have our habitual ways of thinking about things or our habitual ways of seeing things and when you write, you’re saying very consciously: No, I want to see more. Let me see more deeply into that cloudy water.
What was the lowest point for you as a mother in this whole long ordeal? When Gracie was very sick, I called my own mother and asked her to come from California to Durham. There was still a part of my mind that simply disallowed the possibility that Gracie would not survive. I could only believe that she would survive, no matter what. And yet, I was on a [hospital] unit with 16 rooms, and the other parents felt that way too, I assume. I know that they loved their children, each in their own way, just as fiercely as I loved Gracie, and some of those children didn’t survive. It’s hard to make sense of that kind of loss. It’s so wrong, it’s so profoundly wrong. It’s time moving in the wrong direction. Your child is not ever supposed to predecease you. And there’s no real sense to be made of a loss on that scale, except to take joy in who they were and the gift that they lived.
There were several children we were very close to who did not survive, and I would say that watching their parents suffer was both terrifying and anguishing and probably the hardest moment. I would tell you that it was because of my fear for Gracie’s life, but I just didn’t allow myself that luxury at the time. I simply did not believe that she wouldn’t survive, even when she was so sick that the doctors were giving us these numbers, that if you played them out were super scary. Like, she has a 50 percent chance of developing VOD [veno-occlusive disease] and if she gets VOD, she has a 50 percent chance of living. Two flips of the coin. That’s when I called my mom to say, please come. That’s when I was the most frightened for Gracie. But even then, I couldn’t let my mind go there. After it was over, I could see that we were unbelievably lucky and of course anything could have happened because none of us is immune or given any ultimate protection. We’re each fragile and subject to the same set of possibilities. But at the time, the very hardest thing was watching other parents suffer the wound that you can’t really recover from.
Speaking of your mother, why did you choose to dedicate the book to her? Because I love her so much and she’s so fantastic! My mom has the most enormous heart, and she’s somebody who’s trying to figure out how to be as present and giving and warm with anyone she’s with as she can at any moment. She’s a very, very, very generous soul. In particular, I felt that she gave us her undivided and total love and an infrastructure of support through this experience. She did it for me when I was on my own and came back to California, pregnant and unsure of what was going to happen. And she did it for Brian and me, and Gabriel and Gracie, when we were in Durham and Gracie was receiving treatment at Duke. She was just there. If you called her, she came. You know, the trope of maternal love is easy to valorize. It is. With my mom, I feel like that stereotype is real. I wanted her to know how much her gift of time and love meant to us and carried us through. Dedicating the book to her was one way to do that.
Can you talk about friendship and what your friends meant to you during this process? Everything. They meant the difference between tremendous, painful hardship being bearable or unbearable. Being able to come back from a terrifying doctor’s appointment and spew it all back out again and have a friend sit there with you and go through, point by point, trying to understand, trying to parse it, trying to make decisions. Or just being able to go for a walk with a friend and talk about something else, that’s equally meaningful.
Everybody has a different set of legs on their stool. For me, the three legs on my stool of support, when I was on my own with Gracie, were my dearest friend from college, Suzi, and my dearest friend from childhood, Cassie, and my mom. And then later, when Brian and I moved back to Brooklyn, we encountered Kathy and her husband, Steve. I do think that there’s something uniquely valuable, at least in this culture, in female friendship and in the bond of solidarity that comes from a kind of sisterhood that says, I know what you’re going through, I can’t do it for you, but I’m going to hold your hand and walk beside you while you go through it. You’re the one on the hot coals, but I’m walking next to you. Go ahead, squeeze my hand. That doesn’t always come in the form of somebody going, oh, that’s so hard. It can be somebody who’s willing to laugh with you, even making grim jokes at the end of the day.
I felt so carried by my female friends in particular, and I just wanted to record that in the book how meaningful it was.
You definitely achieved that. I felt like I knew each one of them. You mentioned that Gracie is 16 now. I wondered how she feels about being the focus of a book. Is this something you’ve talked over with her? Has she read the book? What was her reaction to it? I think she has a lot of complex and conflicting feelings. She has an almost feminist pride in the fact that her mom has published a book. She knows that her dad is a published writer, so I think she feels kind of like, hey, girl power—go, mom! It was really nice to feel like it was a model for her.
I also think that for her, like any 16 year old, less of her parents’ visibility in the world is better. She feels like having a public portrait of her parents is as embarrassing as standing next to her parents in Target. At 16, you don’t want the world to see them.
I think she feels quite separate from the Gracie who’s described in the book, not because she feels it’s inaccurate, but because she feels it’s so far away. She doesn’t remember much of her transplant experience, much less her infancy, of course. So I think to read about a younger self, who’s going through tremendous suffering at times, is difficult. At the same time, I think she appreciates the kind of pluck I tried to portray in her, that was real. And she still has that kind of plucky spirit, that courageous spirit. I know that’s a kind of stereotype of the sick child as brave, but I don’t know if she was so much brave as resourceful. She really looked for ways to make a bad experience as good as it could possibly be—Iike naming the IV pole and making him her sidekick.
And on discharge day when Bobbie the nurse finally unhooks the IV, she pauses at the door with the pole and says, “Gracie, do you have any last words for your friend?” And Gracie, who was only 3 years old, replies, “Be good to the next girl.” She was in some ways so mature for her age. I think that’s one of the gifts that suffering offers us: compassion. We know that. And it’s no less true for her than for an adult who goes through suffering. She really got that other kids were going through hard things, and she wished the best for them. And she still has that—a very deep well of compassion that has arisen from her own set of experiences.
There are so many cliches about suffering that we’ve all heard—what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, and all that. When you look back now, can you see any positives for your family in having gone through this? I don’t know if I can think of it in exactly those terms. I see it as having been an intrinsic part of who we are at this moment and I wouldn’t change who we are. I feel incredibly grateful to be here. But I think it’s very easy, because we’re human, to go, “This turned out the way it should have.” And I don’t believe that because I saw so many children die. And though you make the best sense of it that you can, it’s still permanent. It’s not that this state we’re living in was meant to be, but it is what we’re given—it’s this moment and you try to embrace the potential, the beauty, the messiness even of the present moment as fully as possible because you don’t know what’s coming around the bend. None of us do.
I think one thing these experiences have given us is a deep appreciation moment by moment for the gift of life, the gift of togetherness.
Near the end of the book, you write: “Parents of perilously sick kids never stop being afraid…. The other shoe is always above our heads, just out of reach, poised to drop.” Do you still feel that way? Yes, and I always will. But I do my very best to shield Gracie from those anxieties. Those are my anxieties and Brian’s anxieties to cope with. Gracie, I hope, I believe, experiences herself as a very strong, powerful young woman. And I hope that sense of herself only grows over time. For us, we will always have one ear cocked for any kind of trouble. Gracie is living in the present; she doesn’t have to live in the past. And that’s part of the beauty of her not remembering a lot of that time. We can learn from her, more and more, how to appreciate her true good health.
What do you hope readers will gain from reading your story? I should have an easy answer to that question, but I don’t. I hope readers take whatever is valuable for them, whatever resonates for them personally. I hope it might open a small door to a part of their personal experience that they choose to reflect on in a deeper way or a new way. But most of all, I hope they take whatever they wish to take.
One hope I have for the book is that it ends up in some book groups. I think that whether you like the book or relate to the story or not, it’s the kind of book that might ignite conversation and sharing of personal stories. I think people feel closer to each other when they’re able to share on a deeper level. If that happens for this book inside book groups, I would be so happy.
What else you would like readers to know about the book? The only thing we haven’t touched on is what I tried to write in the book but found quite difficult: how this experience impacted my faith and my spiritual beliefs. Spirituality is never easy to capture in language because, inherently, you’re trying to express the inexpressible, the ineffable. I went into this experience as a believer in an organizing force of coherence and beauty, of a creative force underlying this incredible universe we find ourselves in. And as painful, as excruciating as it was, to live with the reality that our beautiful, coherent, intelligent world could contain what feels like senseless loss—and probably is senseless in the only way we can apprehend it—it nevertheless is a part of this whole.
I still believe, even after being battered by those questions of why do innocents suffer, and how can this be allowed, it just is. I’m not sure those questions have answers, but I know that the ways in which people respond to each other in their suffering or pain can be very profound, very meaningful and that the renewed appreciation for the value in each individual life is what stays with me. When I think about the children who died, it feels like enough to me that they lived—that unique, beautiful, complex person existed. That’s miraculous.
Heather Harpham’s compelling new memoir, Happiness, is the story of a family dealing with a child's life-threatening illness, but it's also much more. Sponsored by Holt.
BookPage Icebreaker is a publisher-sponsored interview.
What would it be like to discover as an adult that everything you thought you knew about your family was wrong? And that you have birth relatives you've never met? That's the dilemma facing Quinn Weller, the Los Angeles chef at the heart of Jill Shalvis' intriguing new novel, Lost and Found Sisters.
Still grieving the death of her sister, Beth, two years earlier, Quinn receives the shock of her life when a lawyer informs her that she was adopted when she was two days old. Shaken and confused, she leaves her busy life in L.A. behind and heads to the small town of Wildstone, California, to find out more about her inheritance from the mother she never knew.
This compelling women's fiction title is a departure for Shalvis, who made her career as a romance writer. A true multi-tasker, the author told us more about Lost and Found Sisters while walking three dogs on a trail near her home in the Lake Tahoe area.
Lynn: This is your first book in the women’s fiction category after almost 20 years of writing romance. It’s good to see a successful author make the move to branch out creatively like this. What was the impetus for this new direction?
Jill: I had wanted to write a bigger story for a long time, and this particular idea has stuck with me. I tried to do it as a regular romance but it was too big and it needed more point of views than would work within my mainstream romances. So I was lucky enough that HarperCollins wanted a bigger story from me. They contracted me to do both—romance and women’s fiction. The idea was all mine, they just gave me an opportunity to do it and I’m happy to go for it.
What was different about the way you approached this book, compared to writing a romance?
In a romance, which I love and will never stop writing, the romance is the core of the story. And in this book, the sisters are the core of the story. There’s still romance in it—in fact there’s two romances in it—but I think it’s the sisters that drive the story.
"I feel like my yearning [for a sister] was fulfilled, in a way, by writing this book."
You get to write about some issues and situations in Lost and Found Sisters that you probably haven't broached in your romance novels. Which ones were the most interesting for you to explore?
In addition to being women’s fiction and romance, I think this is also a New Adult story because Tilly is a young character. And that excited me the most. I have three daughters, and they're at an age that fascinates me—they’re all in their early 20s. I’ve always wanted to write a younger heroine, but I didn’t feel like it was the right thing to do in a romance. You can't give a 22-year-old a happy-ever-after and expect it to be real and lasting. That’s a little unrealistic. So when I started writing Tilly, I thought I’m finally going to get to do this voice that I have inside me that I’ve been yearning to write. I really enjoyed writing her story. And with the longer word count and the extra point of view,I was able to take things deeper in this book.
Let’s talk about sisters, which, as you said, are at the core of this novel. I have two sisters, and they’ve always been an important part of my life. I can’t imagine not having sisters. So I wondered: Do you have sisters? What was your relationship with them growing up?
I didn’t have a sister and I always, always wished for a sister. It was a deep fantasy of mine to find out that maybe I had been adopted and had this huge family I didn’t know about. But that never happened [laughter]! It was something I yearned for, and I feel like my yearning was fulfilled, in a way, by writing this book.
But you do have daughters, and I assume that after raising three girls, you’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of sibling relationships?
Yes, I’ve seen it all. In fact, we had my three daughters and then we took one in, so I really raised four teenage girls. And I have truly seen it all and experienced it all through their eyes. That also lent some power to the voice in the book, I think, because I could see the things that are real that are going on in their lives, and fictionalize them. I love studying them and I love studying their relationships, which are very complicated, as you probably know, with sisters.
Yes, I think it’s probably one of the most complicated relationships in life. How close in age are your girls?
Very close. Let’s see, I’ve got 22, 23, 24 and 26.
I can only imagine the teenage years!
I call them the deep dark years of hell. I’m not sure how we all survived, but we did.
In addition to sisters, adoption is also at the core of this story. At one point, Quinn's good friend Brock tells her, "I'm sorry, [your parents] should've told you, but it doesn't change anything about who you are. It doesn't. You're still smart, funny and amazing." Is Brock right? How do you feel about the decision by Quinn’s parents not to tell her she was adopted?
There are two points of view—one is the writer in me, or if I were, say, a friend of Quinn’s. Both of those people think she should have been told. But the mother in me can understand why they didn’t tell her. It doesn’t make it right, but I can understand.
And would you say the same thing about her birth mother, Caroline, and the choice she made to give her daughter up for adoption?
Again, as a mother, I don’t understand the choice Caroline made, but I can appreciate that she made it, and that she wanted Quinn to have something she thought she couldn’t give her.
Let’s talk about more about Tilly, Quinn's younger sister. She’s such an interesting character and so believable as a teen who’s just lost her mother. How did you approach her part of the story?
In my original vision for this book, it was going to be told from Tilly’s point of view. But that was years ago, in my head, and the reality was that Quinn really needed to be the narrator so we could fully understand Tilly—because Tilly was too young to understand all the nuances of everything that was going on. So if I’d done it from her point of view we would have missed a lot.
Quinn's antagonist, Lena, must’ve also been a fun character to write.
Oh yeah. I love her.
You love or you hate her? Which is it?
Both! I think she’s incredible. She’s been through a rough time and she’s a survivor. I tried to make her more than just a villain so we could understand where she was coming from. I needed someone for Quinn to butt heads against, a brutally honest point of view so Quinn could hear some hard things, and that’s where Lena came from. I needed that person for Quinn.
And she worked very well in that role. And then there is Lena’s old flame, Mick. Sparks start to fly between Mick and Quinn, and you’ve included some steamy scenes between the two of them. But those scenes don’t dominate the story. Was that hard? Did you have to fight the inclination to focus more on the romantic parts of the story?
Definitely. I love Mick and I love Dylan and I really wanted to write about the two romances, but there was also the core relationship of the two sisters that was drawing me. So I was lucky that I got to write all of it.
Wildstone, the small town in California where much of the story takes place, doesn’t have street lights, billboards, drive-throughs, reliable cell service, Thai takeout or Uber. Why did you want to set the novel in a town like this one and what does it contribute to the story?
It makes Quinn an automatic fish out of water, for one thing, coming from the big city of L.A. We’ve all heard about small towns but not everyone has actually experienced one, so I was trying to make that setting come to life—and poke a little fun at it, the culture of it. There’s a place in the middle of the state of California where we go—there are a couple of beaches in the area, it’s outlined by ranches and green rolling hills, and it’s one of my favorite places. So I kind of “stole” it, let’s say, for Wildstone.
You also had some personal inspiration for Quinn’s experience, I assume, because you live in a small town now but you grew up mostly in L.A.
Yes, and growing up, I was that girl who couldn’t imagine a small town and who poked fun at it if I went to one. I’d never tried to live in a small town until about 15 years ago. We moved to a small town near Lake Tahoe and it was quite the transition. I still have that big city girl in me, but now I’m happy to visit the city and go home.
Your books have always included a lot of comedy, and this one does as well even though it deals with serious subjects. Why is that important to you?
Life can be really hard if you let it. Certainly I’ve had a lot of complications and trials and tribulations like everyone else, and it’s my way of coping, to try to find the funny in everything. I’ve found that really works in fiction, too. If I’m talking about something really serious and there’s something funny going on in the background, that makes it OK.
Do you think your romance fans will follow you to this new book? Or do you expect to attract a new group of fans?
All of it! I hope my romance readers follow me. I think I gave them enough romance in this book to make them happy. And I also hope to reach new readers—people who haven’t given romance a shot before and people who love women’s fiction.
What would it be like to discover that everything you thought you knew about your family was wrong? That's the dilemma facing Quinn Weller, the Los Angeles sous-chef at the heart of Jill Shalvis' intriguing new novel, Lost and Found Sisters.
Interest in the Beatles has never really waned, but the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (released on June 1, 1967) has prompted a new wave of remembrances, celebrations and tributes to the Fab Four. An expanded reissue of Sgt. Pepper’s goes on sale later this week, Sirius XM satellite radio has launched a 24/7 Beatles channel, and the BBC plans a round of special radio and TV programming to reconsider the groundbreaking album.
On the literary front, several new books on the band and its music are being published to coincide with the anniversary, including a nostalgic and entertaining essay collection, In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs. Edited by literary agent Andrew Blauner, the collection includes pieces by 29 notable authors and musicians who were asked to name their favorite Beatles song and explain what the song means to them. Writers from Jane Smiley to Adam Gopnik accepted the challenge, delivering thoughtful and often deeply personal reflections on how the Beatles rocked their world.
“When I think about ‘She Loves You,’ and how much I loved that song, how new it sounded, and how happy it made me feel to hear it, I think about how much it represented the mirage of a possible future, one that was more joyful and more interesting than my lonely and borderline-grim childhood,” writes New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chast in the book's opening essay.
We asked Blauner to tell us more about how the collection was assembled and what he—a lifelong Beatles fan—learned from reading the 29 essays.
This collection has an extremely impressive roster of contributors. How did you go about finding writers and musicians who have a particular fondness for the Beatles? Thank you. It was a combination of going to people whose work I admire, writers whom I knew liked the Beatles, or who were at least interested in and/or knowledgeable about music, while others were shots in the dark—writers who have great voices, styles, insights, whether the subject matter was going to trigger them or not.
It’s axiomatic that some of the best writing about sports is done by people who are not sportswriters per se. Maybe something akin to that could be said about music writing. And I thought it was telling and auspicious that even some of the people whom I asked, but who could not contribute for one reason or another, still engaged with the idea and mentioned what their song would have been. I met Natalie Merchant, invited her and she broke into “Fixing a Hole.” Jonathan Lethem said that he’d have done “And Your Bird Can Sing,” which, interestingly, is what my brother, Peter, writes about in the book. I think the only person who did not respond was President Obama, though I reckon I already knew what his choice would be (read: “Michelle”).
What matchup of song and author surprised you the most? Hmm, maybe Rosanne Cash and “No Reply.” Or David Duchovny and “Dear Prudence.” David is a longtime family friend, going back to childhood. He’s also, now, a prized client, and he wrote the intro to one of my other collections, Coach. I knew what kind of writer and thinker he was, and I knew that he knew music, and, coincidentally, he just hosted the Kennedy Center tribute to John Lennon. But I had no idea what kind of piece he would write in this context. And I was very happily surprised by what he wrote about “Dear Prudence.” At the Kennedy Center tribute, he said, “ ‘Dear Prudence’ wasn’t a happy song. It was complicated. But it revealed character; told a story. It was jarring in a profound way, and since then I’ve demanded more from my art and entertainment.”
This book not only has personal reminiscences about the music, but also some very interesting Beatles trivia and history. What new things did you learn about the Beatles from these essays? A lot, actually, including the fact that only two covers of Beatles songs have ever reached number one (you can find out which songs in Thomas Beller’s piece). Virtually all of Chuck Klosterman’s piece about “Helter Skelter” is a revelation. And thanks to Elissa Schappell, I now have an entirely new appreciation for, and understanding of, “Octopus’s Garden.” And while I’ve listened to so many of the other featured songs thousands of times before, some I will never hear quite the same way again, because of what the contributors wrote—Rosanne Cash on “No Reply”; Nicky Dawidoff on “A Day in the Life”; Mona Simpson on “She’s Leaving Home”; Gerald Early on “I’m a Loser”; and many more.
Why did you decide to arrange the book chronologically, by the date of each song’s release? To tell a story. Of a kind. In a way. To show a progression, a trajectory—the evolution, revolution, devolution. . . . From the youthful innocence, exuberance, simplicity and lightness of the early songs, through the more experimental, meditative, mature, spiritual, dark sides, and ultimately, out the other side. Maybe, too, in the way that Sgt. Pepper is considered a “concept album” (the first of its kind, some will say), so, too, is this a “concept book.”
Why do you think The Beatles have had such a huge impact on writers? At least part of the answer to that question is that it’s a syllogism. Which is to say, the Beatles have had a huge impact on a great many different populations of people. And that includes writers. Is it disproportionately more so with writers? The way that, say, writers still tend to have AOL addresses a lot more than other people? I wish I knew. But I don’t.
Did you find that younger writers, those who hadn’t been born when the Beatles became popular, had different reactions to the music than those who were around from the very beginning? It’s paradoxical. To some extent, yes; and in other ways, no. It’s crystallized, I think, in a piece that Francine Prose wrote with her 8-year-old granddaughter, Emilia, which addresses how the music speaks to members of different generations. ["Emilia's Beatlemania is, I think, purer than mine, less affected by history and time, more reflective of a child's love than a teenager's," Prose writes.] Alan Light puts his finger on the fact that so many of us feel as if we’re not quite old enough to remember, that we just missed out on being there to experience the Beatles first-hand. Not to mention that, in “I Saw Her Standing There,” Paul sings, “She was just 17, you know what I mean.” We did not know.
Do you remember how you felt the first time you listened to Sgt. Pepper’s? How have your feelings about the album changed over the years? I do not remember the first time. I turned three exactly one week after the album was released. And I imagine that, thanks to my oldest brother, Steven, if not my parents, too, that I started hearing it almost immediately. My girlfriend and I have a toddler at home, he’s two-and-a-half, and he’s already learning—and asking for—some of the songs. Anyway, over time, I remember how connected I’d start to get to some of the songs on that album, and being a bit torn between wanting to jump around, skip the needle on the vinyl, that is, to get to my favorites, vs. honoring the concept that it was meant to be listened to, in its entirety, sequentially.
To the second part of your question, well, again, it’s paradoxical, since in some ways things seem exactly the same, while in other ways I have a very different and, I hope, deeper understanding now. “A Day in the Life” is maybe the best example of that, and the famed last note, and the buildup [and down] to it. I think of it a lot, symbolically, metaphorically. Oh, and there’s also the fact that “When I’m 64,” has taken on all new meanings of its own.
Who was your favorite Beatle? I have long liked the idea that the whole was greater than the sum of the parts when it came to the Beatles, just as it did when I played team sports. Otherwise, my favorite changed over time. It was Paul at the outset, then John, then George. Then George Martin (the 5th, or is he the 6th erstwhile Beatle?). I used to try to mimic a lot of the songs, and I could come close to getting some of them, but others, no matter what I did, how hard I tried, and without knowing who was singing lead vocals on certain tracks, I couldn’t get it. And it turns out that on those songs, it was John and Paul harmonizing so perfectly, so seamlessly, that it sounded like one voice.
What’s the one Beatles song you’ll never tire of listening to? There isn’t just one, really. And I’m wondering if there are any, in fact, that I have ever tired of. I don’t think there are. But OK, you asked me to choose one, and so I’ll give you “In My Life,” from which the title of the book comes.
What is it about the Beatles that makes their music worth preserving and passing down through generations? The beautiful universals, perhaps? Transcendent, resonant, passed down (and up), and across. “Come Together.” “All You Need Is Love.” “Let It Be.” “I Am the Walrus.” It’s also the great equalizer, democratizer, common ground, in an increasingly divided country and world. Beatles music never goes out of fashion. It unifies people, families. It’s a constant companion, a friend with whom to celebrate and commiserate and meditate, covering so many moods and modalities and modes. The Beatles comfort and console us, help to connect us, make us feel understanding and amplify our moments of joy.
Several new books on the Beatles and their music are being published to coincide with the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s including a nostalgic and entertaining essay collection, In Their Lives: Great Writers on Great Beatles Songs.
Are you kicking off 2017 determined to make it your best year yet? Breaking old habits or starting new routines can seem like insurmountable tasks without help and advice. Follow the strategies in the books below, and you’ll have a head start on making meaningful changes in the year ahead.
TAKE LIFE PRO-TIPS FROM THE EXPERTS Tim Ferriss has attracted a huge following with his website, bestselling books (The 4-Hour Workweek, etc.) and podcast (“The Tim Ferriss Show,” downloaded more than 100 million times) that offer advice on living the life of your dreams. In his whopping new collection, Tools of Titans: The Tactics, Routines, and Habits of Billionaires, Icons, and World-Class Performers, Ferriss distills the wisdom from nearly 200 podcast interviews with high achievers. The “titans” represented here range from “governator” Arnold Schwarzenegger to writer Maria Popova, founder of BrainPickings.org.
Ferriss describes himself as a “compulsive note-taker” who carefully tracks his activities to figure out what works and what doesn’t in his quest to be healthy, wealthy and wise. Similarly, in Tools of Titans, he zeroes in on the actions and behaviors that have helped his subjects rise to the tops of their fields. One favorite question, for example, is about the person’s morning routine (performance coach Tony Robbins starts his day with a cold water plunge; entrepreneur Peter Diamandis does stretches in the shower). The tips from interviewees are supplemented with summaries of Ferriss’ own strategies, from “5 Tools for Faster and Better Sleep” to “Mind Training 101.” A Poor Richard’s Almanack for the 21st century, Tools of Titans is a practical and inspiring guide to being your best.
GET OFF THE COUCH AND GET ORGANIZED If you’re looking for gentle and encouraging advice on tidying up your living space, you should probably steer clear of Unf*ck Your Habitat: You’re Better Than Your Mess. Author Rachel Hoffman takes a drill-sergeant approach to housekeeping and organization, laying down the law in clear, direct and very funny fashion. One rule is non-negotiable: You will make your bed, every day. “I can hear you whining from here, seriously. I know you don’t want to make your bed. I know you don’t see the point. . . . But a messy bed makes a room look messier and a made bed brings a focal point of cleanliness and order.” Hoffman spells out the basics of cleaning (“Trash goes in the trash can. Do the dishes every day.”) and instructs the slovenly on how to build better habits. A chapter on “Emergency Unf*cking” offers helpful tips on handling an impending visit from your mom or landlord.
EAT LIKE YOUR LIFE DEPENDS ON IT A hit with readers when it was self-published, Deep Nutrition: Why Your Genes Need Traditional Food is now available in an updated edition. Author Catherine Shanahan, a family physician, was motivated to study the connection between diet and wellness after she suffered problems with her own health. Through research on cultures around the world, she identified four “pillars” that healthy diets have in common: meat cooked on the bone, fermented and sprouted foods, organ meats and fresh foods. With a wealth of detail, Shanahan shows how changing what you eat can improve everything from bone strength to memory.
BE BOLD ENOUGH TO CONQUER YOUR FEARS Does fear prevent you from achieving your goals? In Reach: A New Strategy to Help You Step Outside Your Comfort Zone, Rise to the Challenge, and Build Confidence, behavioral expert Andy Molinsky reveals how hard we work to avoid tasks that make us uncomfortable—from public speaking to being assertive with a co-worker. Through procrastination, passing the buck or outright avoidance, we evade what we’re afraid of. So how can this cycle of fear be broken? Molinsky identifies three Cs—conviction, or a sense of purpose; customization, or finding what works for you; and clarity, being honest about the problem—to help you make the leap and confront your challenges.
SIMPLIFY AND LIVE WITH LESS Though she’s French, author Dominique Loreau has lived in Japan since the 1970s, adopting a Japanese mindset and taking a Zen approach to clutter. Her guide to simplifying, L’art de la Simplicité: How to Live More with Less, is an international bestseller now available in English thanks to translator Louise Lalaurie. Her outlook shares key elements with Japanese declutterer Marie Kondo (The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up), but Loreau takes a more spiritual approach, going beyond tidy closets to advocate minimalism in all aspects of life, from eating to relationships. The reward for shedding what we don’t need, she asserts, is a purer spirit and a more satisfying life.
SAVOR YOUR DOWNTIME Let’s face it: Being without our smartphones for even a few minutes can be a distressing experience. In an era of constant connection, how do we wind down and enjoy times of quiet contemplation? Eva Hoffman has some elegant thoughts on the subject in How to Be Bored, the latest in the School of Life series, which tackles some of life’s big questions in slender volumes. As Hoffman points out, we all have good reasons to be busy, but there are also many good reasons to unplug: cultivating a sense of curiosity about the world, observing what’s around us more closely and, perhaps most importantly, thinking about how we want to live. “This is in a way the major task of any conscious life,” Hoffman writes, “and it has never been easy.”
This article was originally published in the January 2017 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.
Are you kicking off 2017 determined to make it your best year yet? Breaking old habits or starting new routines can seem like insurmountable tasks without help and advice. Follow the strategies in the books below, and you’ll have a head start on making meaningful changes in the year ahead.
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