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Discussion Questions: Behind Closed Doors

January 22nd, 2015

Behind Closed Doors coverDetective Sergeant Andrea Lawrence is reluctant to take this emotionally charged case, but she can’t help herself. In a small British seaside community, a fourteen-year-old girl has vanished. Sophie Monroe hasn’t been seen since she fought—loudly, miserably—with her stepmother and father more than a week before. But her frantic parents seem to be the only people concerned about Sophie’s disappearance. Everyone else just assumes that an angry teenager is acting out by hiding for a while.

Did someone help Sophie run away, or abduct her? Either way, Detective Andee is certain something bad has happened. As Andee investigates, two men jump to the top of the list of suspects—but neither of them can be located. And the deeper Andee delves into Sophie’s life, the more she struggles to keep her own darkest fears at bay—because Andee knows all too well what happens when young girls are lost and never found.

Discuss Behind Closed Doors with your book club and dive into this this captivating family drama!

1. This book tackles a sensitive topic. What was the most difficult part for you to read? Why?

2. Do you think Andee should have been removed from the case? Do you think she was a reliable investigator? Is it ethical for a detective to continue to work on a case that he or she has a close personal connection to?

3. Did you lose faith in Tomasz at any point? What triggered that loss of faith?

4. How do you think you would have reacted if you were in Heidi and Gavin’s position?

5. What do you think could or should have been done to prevent Sophie’s downward behavioral spiral?

6. Which character do you sympathize with the most? Why?

7. Were you ever curious about the robberies? Or was it a surprise that they were linked to the broader plot?

8. Did you suspect the parents all along? Were you surprised?

9. Do you think Andee should have forgiven Martin? What if they didn’t have kids? Would you have forgiven him?

10. In many instances this novel presents adults who maybe aren’t paying enough attention to their teenage children. Think about Andee and Martin’s behavior too, not just Heidi and Gavin’s. Are they allowing their children a taste of independence and adulthood, or simply being negligent?

11. Many characters experience heartbreak of some form or another during this novel—Andee, Sophie, Gavin, Heidi, Kasia. Which character’s shoes would it be the hardest to walk in?

12. This novel explores themes of grief, broken homes, human trafficking, betrayal, and more. Which did you find the most powerful?

Q&A with Weight of Blood author, Laura McHugh

January 20th, 2015

Weight of Blood A Conversation with Laura McHugh

Originally published on BookPage.com. Interview by Trisha Ping.

You’ll never think of small-town life the same way again after reading Laura McHugh’s chilling debut, The Weight of Blood. Part Twin Peaks, part Tana French, the novel opens just after the body of eighteen-year-old Cheri has been found stuffed into a tree trunk. Lucy Dane may have been the troubled Cheri’s only friend, and after turning up some disturbing evidence she becomes determined to track down Cheri’s killer—especially since her own mother’s disappearance some fifteen years earlier has still never been solved. As Lucy’s quest proceeds, she begins to unearth the town’s darkest secrets, some of which involve her own family.

We asked McHugh, who lives in Missouri with her family, a few questions about her new book.

Trisha Ping: As a former software developer, you took an unconventional path to becoming a writer. Is it something you’ve always wanted to do?

Laura McHugh: I wanted to be a writer all along, but I had no mental road map of how to make that happen. I was a first-generation college student—my dad was a shoe repairman, my mom worked at Waffle House—and I had never heard of an MFA. We viewed higher education in a very practical way, as a ticket out of poverty. I studied creative writing as an undergrad, but for grad school I chose more technical degrees, ones that I thought would result in steady employment. I was a software developer for ten years, and then suddenly I lost my job. That’s when I completely reevaluated my life. I’d been writing short stories, had published a couple, and dreamed of writing a novel. I didn’t want to regret that I never tried. I feel incredibly lucky that things worked out the way they did.

TP: How did you come to write this particular story?

LM: My family moved to the Ozarks when I was a kid. The community was close-knit and wary of outsiders, and the surrounding area was home to groups that wanted to isolate themselves from the rest of the world. We lived down the road from the East Wind commune (a woman would sometimes jog topless past our school bus stop), and not far from the compound of a militia group called The Covenant, the Sword, and the Arm of the Lord. I was haunted by the place long after we left, and I wanted to capture what it was like to grow up in such an insular place, and also to show it from an outsider’s viewpoint.

In the midst of writing the novel, I came across a news article from the small rural town where I’d attended high school. A local teen had been victimized in a shocking crime, and the people involved had kept it secret for years. That crime was the inspiration for Cheri’s story.

TP: Small towns are usually associated with words like “peaceful,” “idyllic,” or “friendly.” Henbane is none of the above. Why were you drawn to depicting the darker side of rural life?

LM: For one thing, it’s in my nature—show me a seemingly idyllic town, and I’ll instantly wonder what’s hidden in the shadows. I grew up in a series of small rural towns, and they’re grittier than people might imagine. I’m also fascinated by the way crime plays out in these tight-knit communities where everyone knows (or is related to) everyone else. No one wants to speak out against their neighbor or their kin, or maybe they’d rather not involve the law. A good example is the murder of Ken McElroy in tiny Skidmore, Missouri. He was a bully and had gotten away with some serious crimes. The townspeople were fed up and decided to take action. McElroy was murdered in broad daylight in the middle of town, in front of nearly fifty witnesses, and not a single person would rat out the killers. (Also, no one called an ambulance.)

TP: On a similar note, thrillers are often very black and white—but your book definitely deals in shades of gray. Does that present challenges when writing suspense?

LM: I didn’t find it problematic while writing this book. Maybe it helped that I didn’t set out to write a thriller. I wanted to tell Lucy’s story, and I wanted the reader to keep turning the pages, and the story naturally became more suspenseful as it developed. I enjoy books with those murky shades of gray, but I’m not biased one way or the other—I like all sorts of thrillers, and I’ll read anything that grabs my attention and won’t let go.

TP: Without giving too much away, Lucy makes some dark discoveries about the adults in her life—people who care deeply for her might be capable of bad things. The novel is also a coming-of-age story, though, and these revelations mirror one of the rites of passage of growing up: learning that adults are people, too.

LM: You’re right, that’s an important part of growing up. I clearly remember having that revelation as a kid. It’s scary to realize that the grownups in charge are not necessarily making good decisions. For Lucy, as for most people, it’s difficult to process and accept the idea that a loved one might be capable of grave wrongdoing.

TP: You tell this story from several different perspectives. Which character was your favorite to write? Which was the hardest?

LM: Jamie Petree, the drug dealer who is obsessed with Lila, was my favorite. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I have always loved to write creepy characters—they come naturally to me. I liked being able to show Jamie from two different perspectives. We know how Lucy views him, and we also get to go inside his head and get a sense of who he really is.

Lucy’s mother, Lila, was the hardest. She started out a bit more innocent and naïve, but that wasn’t working. I had to let go and let her be a bit more troubled and troublesome.

TP: Although the violence is not at all sensationalized, bad things happen to girls and women in this book. I assume that’s something you thought about, as the mother of two young daughters. Do you think there are lines that fiction writers should not cross in this area?

LM: Truth is always stranger and more disturbing than fiction, and the things that happen to Cheri in this book don’t compare to what happened to the real-life victim who inspired her character. I did not want to portray violence against women in a way that was titillating or sensational, and I was careful about how I approached it in the book. That said, I wouldn’t put any limitations on fiction writers. Real life is so much more dangerous than a book that you can close and put away.

TP: What are you working on next?

LM: I am finishing up my second novel, which will also be published by Spiegel & Grau. A young woman witnessed the kidnapping of her sisters years ago, and now a terrible discovery forces her to question everything about her past, including her own memory. The novel is set in a decaying Iowa river town—I do love small towns and their secrets.

Exclusive Q&A with Susan Lewis, author of Behind Closed Doors

January 16th, 2015

Behind Closed Doors coverDetective Sergeant Andrea Lawrence is reluctant to take this emotionally charged case, but she can’t help herself. In a small British seaside community, a fourteen-year-old girl has vanished. Sophie Monroe hasn’t been seen since she fought—loudly, miserably—with her stepmother and father more than a week before. But her frantic parents seem to be the only people concerned about Sophie’s disappearance. Everyone else just assumes that an angry teenager is acting out by hiding for a while.

Did someone help Sophie run away, or abduct her? Either way, Detective Andee is certain something bad has happened. As Andee investigates, two men jump to the top of the list of suspects—but neither of them can be located. And the deeper Andee delves into Sophie’s life, the more she struggles to keep her own darkest fears at bay—because Andee knows all too well what happens when young girls are lost and never found.

Random House Reader’s Circle sat down with Susan to talk about her inspiration and research for Behind Closed Doors.

Random House Reader’s Circle: What inspired you to write about a missing-person case?

Susan Lewis: I think like most people I am fascinated—and terrified—by the thought of someone I love simply vanishing from the face of the world. I have explored this subject in other books, and I imagine it will come up again in the future, since there are so many possible reasons for a disappearance, and just as many possible outcomes.

RHRC: In the past you’ve traveled extensively, immersed yourself in the social work system, and gone to great lengths to build context for the stories you write. What was the most important part of your research for Behind Closed Doors?

SL: It was obtaining police cooperation. The book couldn’t have been written without it.

RHRC: Was there anything you learned that really surprised you during your research?

SL: The biggest surprise was just how many teenagers go missing. Most, thankfully, show up sooner or later, but some never do.

RHRC: Was Andee inspired by a real person? Why did you decide to make her have such a special connection to the case?

SL: Andee is purely fictitious. I don’t like to invade real people’s personal stories to the point of such brutal exposure.

RHRC: Did you always plan for Sophie’s parents to be guilty? Why or why not?

SL: Yes, that was always the plan, the reason being that Andee wouldn’t want to believe it of them, any more than she believed it of her own father. The blow of discovering it was them tips her into a new and necessary grief for her sister.

RHRC: Which character do you most connect with or have the most sympathy for? Why?

SL: Actually, it’s probably Gavin, Sophie’s father. He was doing his best after his wife died and he loved his daughter unreservedly, yet he still managed to get things wrong. Sometimes bad things just happen.

RHRC: What was the most challenging part of writing this novel?

SL: Police procedure.

RHRC: In what way(s) do you feel Behind Closed Doors is different from your previous novels? In what way(s) is it similar?

SL: I usually write from the heart of a family; this time I’ve written from an outsider’s point of view. Having said that, Andee’s family is as key to the story as Sophie’s is.

RHRC: How does writing about such heartbreaking lives affect you as a person? As an author?

SL: It affects me deeply while I’m writing the story—if it didn’t, I couldn’t expect to connect with the reader. Many tears are shed during certain scenes, but I’m glad to say that laughter often gets me up from the computer as one of the characters does or says something I really wasn’t expecting.

RHRC: Is there a message that you hope readers will take away from the book?

SL: That even people who do bad things aren’t all bad.

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Reader’s Guide: The Dress Shop of Dreams

December 16th, 2014
RHRC: What do you love most about writing?
MVP: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.
RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?
MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

9780804178983Meena Van Praag’s new novel The Dress Shop of Derams is a captivating story of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires. Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry,, and Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

Read Random House Readers Circle’s exclusive conversation with Meena below!

Random House Reader’s Circle: What do you love most about writing?

Meena Van Praag: While I fall absolutely in love with my characters, losing myself in their stories (these are often as much a surprise to me as to anyone), most of all I love the words: the way a beautiful sentence feels on your tongue, the delightful surprise of a startling and lovely simile or metaphor. I simply love words.

RHRC: What are some of your favorite books and authors?

MVP: Magical realism has always been my favourite genre. I like to think there’s more to reality than our five senses show us. My favorite author, above all others, is probably Alice Hoffman. I love the magic in her tales, along with the acute realism of the worlds she creates. Other favorite magical-­realism authors include: Isabel Allende, Laura Esquivel, Sarah Addison Allen and Barbara O’Neal. Other favorite authors, who don’t write specifically in that genre, include: Erica Bauermeister, Maggie O’Farrell, Ann Patchett, Tracy Chevalier, Carey Wallace, Anita Shreve, Kate Morton, Anne Lamott, Anne Tyler, Neil Gaiman and Sue Monk Kidd. I’ve just finished The Age of Desire by Jennie Fields, which I found to be a beautiful book. I’m always on the look out for new authors, so if we share similar tastes and you have any recommendations, please get in touch!

[Click to read more]

Reader’s Guide: Discussion Questions for The Dress Shop of Dreams

December 12th, 2014
1. Etta’s dresses give their wearers a magic push to go after their dreams. Have you ever had an item of clothing that especially inspired you to take action that you might not have otherwise? Or perhaps someone or something gave you a push to do something that you might not have initiated on your own?
2. Why do you think Etta’s magic doesn’t work on her?
3. Cora’s father tells her the chemical formula for love is “One proton of faith, three electrons of humility, a neutron of compassion and a bond of honesty.” Do you agree? Would you add anything to this equation?
4. Dylan’s letters bring comfort to many lonely fans of the Night Reader. Do you think that justifies his duplicity?
5. Another possible title for this book was The Night Reader, after Walt and his special secret. Does it change the story for you if you think of Walt as the main character? Which of the characters do you most identify with?
6. On page 142, Cora tells her grandmother that “all the great leaps are made when a scientist thinks of something she can’t yet prove, then dedicates her life to trying.” All of the characters in this book have to make leaps of faith to get something they want. What are some examples?
7. Do you think Etta made a mistake when she decided not to tell Sebastian about their daughter? Would you have made the same decision? Are secrets inherently wrong or sometimes justifiable?
8. Should Henry have fought for Francesca even when she told him she didn’t love him anymore? Do you think she was right to send him away?
9. At the start of the novel, Cora protects herself from pain by focusing on numbers and lab work. But all of the novel’s characters have ways of hiding from their feelings. What do you think these characters are afraid of? Do you ever notice yourself or others around you strategically avoiding difficult truths?
10. As he reads, Walt notices similarities between himself and the characters in his books: he identifies with Emma in Madame Bovary, Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, and Cyrano de Bergerac. Are there other great literary figures you would compare him to? What about Etta? Cora?
11. On page 37, Etta thinks: “It’s a great shame . . . that the heart cannot feel joy without also feeling pain, that it cannot know love without also knowing loss.” Do you agree that it’s true that we cannot love without also suffering?

9780804178983


Meena Van Praag’s The Dress Shop of Dreams is a captivating novel of enduring hopes, second chances, and the life-changing magic of true love.

Since her parents’ mysterious deaths many years ago, scientist Cora Sparks has spent her days in the safety of her university lab or at her grandmother Etta’s dress shop. Tucked away on a winding Cambridge street, Etta’s charming tiny store appears quite ordinary to passersby, but the colorfully vibrant racks of beaded silks, delicate laces, and jewel-toned velvets hold bewitching secrets: With just a few stitches from Etta’s needle, these gorgeous gowns have the power to free a woman’s deepest desires. Etta’s dearest wish is to work her magic on her granddaughter. But magic spells—like true love—can go awry,, and Etta realizes she’s set in motion a series of astonishing events that will transform Cora’s life in extraordinary and unexpected ways.

Discuss this “bighearted, beautiful” novel with your book club this holiday season! (Susan Wiggs)

1. Etta’s dresses give their wearers a magic push to go after their dreams. Have you ever had an item of clothing that especially inspired you to take action that you might not have otherwise? Or perhaps someone or something gave you a push to do something that you might not have initiated on your own?

2. Why do you think Etta’s magic doesn’t work on her?

3. Cora’s father tells her the chemical formula for love is “One proton of faith, three electrons of humility, a neutron of compassion and a bond of honesty.” Do you agree? Would you add anything to this equation?

4. Dylan’s letters bring comfort to many lonely fans of the Night Reader. Do you think that justifies his duplicity?

5. Another possible title for this book was The Night Reader, after Walt and his special secret. Does it change the story for you if you think of Walt as the main character? Which of the characters do you most identify with?

6. On page 142, Cora tells her grandmother that “all the great leaps are made when a scientist thinks of something she can’t yet prove, then dedicates her life to trying.” All of the characters in this book have to make leaps of faith to get something they want. What are some examples?

7. Do you think Etta made a mistake when she decided not to tell Sebastian about their daughter? Would you have made the same decision? Are secrets inherently wrong or sometimes justifiable?

8. Should Henry have fought for Francesca even when she told him she didn’t love him anymore? Do you think she was right to send him away?

9. At the start of the novel, Cora protects herself from pain by focusing on numbers and lab work. But all of the novel’s characters have ways of hiding from their feelings. What do you think these characters are afraid of? Do you ever notice yourself or others around you strategically avoiding difficult truths?

10. As he reads, Walt notices similarities between himself and the characters in his books: he identifies with Emma in Madame Bovary, Marianne from Sense and Sensibility, and Cyrano de Bergerac. Are there other great literary figures you would compare him to? What about Etta? Cora?

11. On page 37, Etta thinks: “It’s a great shame . . . that the heart cannot feel joy without also feeling pain, that it cannot know love without also knowing loss.” Do you agree that it’s true that we cannot love without also suffering?

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