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Discussion Questions: The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne

September 21st, 2015

The Scent of Secrets_ThynneSet in Europe, in 1938, during the tense run-up to war, and perfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, this gripping historical novel features the half-British, half-German actress (and wholly covert spy) Clara Vine, who finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous game of subterfuge.

Take a deeper dive into the world of Clara Vine with these discussion questions…

1.   Who surprised you the most in the novel?

2.   Women played a crucial role in Hitler’s vision for the future of Germany. Discuss the role of women in German society in the 1930s. How does Hitler want the position of women to change?

3.   There are several examples of women who are even more fervently in favor of the Nazi cause than their spouses; did that surprise you? Why or why not? Discuss the relationships between the high–ranking Nazi officials and their wives.

4.   What did you think of Rosa’s decision to forge her nephew’s official medical papers? Were you surprised by her decision? Why or why not?

5.   What did you think of Eva Braun? What about her relationship with Hitler? Was she as silly as she sometimes seemed to be, or do you think she understood more about politics than she let on?

6.   Discuss the importance of the Nazi youth clubs and the mother schools in implementing the Nazi philosophy.

7.   Like most Berliners, Clara grows suspicious of everyone—-including her new neighbor, who turns out to be an innocent schoolteacher. Anyone might be a spy, even young children on their Sunday collection rounds. What means of recourse are there for normal citizens who do not support the Nazi regime?

8.   There seem to be a lot of inconsistencies in the personal, political, and moral philosophies of Hitler and his entourage. Hitler detests makeup yet loves actresses and the cinema. Goebbels champions family values yet is a serial philanderer. Rosa observes that party leaders seem to want to keep men and women separate, like flour and sugar, while at the same time encouraging higher birth rates and more marriage. Can you think of any other examples? How do you rationalize these hypocrisies? How do they?

9.   What surprised you most about Hitler?

10.  Compare and contrast the different Nazi wives in the novel.

11. What would your signature scent be?

A Conversation Between Christina Baker Kline and Amanda Eyre Ward

September 18th, 2015

The Same Sky_Ward_No TargetChristina Baker Kline chats with Amanda Eyre Ward about The Same Sky, Ward’s  beautiful and heartrending novel about motherhood, resilience, and faith—a ripped-from-the-headlines story of two families on both sides of the American border.

Christina Baker Kline is a novelist, nonfiction writer, and editor. She is the author of the #1 New York Times bestselling Orphan Train, a novel about an unlikely friendship between a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child and a ninety–one–year–old Irish American widow who was one of several hundred thousand orphans to be transported from crowded East Coast cities to foster homes in the Midwest during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Christina’s other novels include Bird in Hand, The Way Life Should Be, Desire Lines, and Sweet Water.

Amanda Eyre Ward is the critically acclaimed author of five novels, including the bestseller How to Be Lost. She has spent the last year visiting shelters in Texas and California, meeting immigrant children and hearing their stories. This novel is inspired by them.

Christina Baker Kline: I read The Same Sky six months ago and still carry it around in my head. Your writing is vivid and immediate; you tell a complex story in such an accessible way. The reason I think it’s so memorable is that you build scenes with vivid specific details, use humor as a valve, and write about your characters with compassion and depth. They are fully human. Tell me—-how did you pull that off?

Amanda Eyre Ward: I know that some writers start with a plot or setting, but for me, everything begins with my characters. I see them in my imagination, and follow them wherever they want to take me. (I have learned from experience that trying to force them to go where I want them to is a futile and wasted effort.)

I spend a lot of time taking care of my children and not getting words on the page, so I try to use this time to gather details about my characters: If I’m grocery shopping, I ask myself, What would Alice buy for dinner? If I’m driving to a birthday party, I think, Which street might lead to Evian’s house?

I’m a huge reader, and if I’m invested in a character, I won’t put down the book. So when I wanted to write about unaccompanied minors and their journey to the U.S. border, I knew that Carla’s character was key. Luckily, her voice came to me. Carla’s voice mirrors many of the unaccompanied minors I met: feisty, funny, brave, hopeful.

CBK: How did you come to be interested in unaccompanied minors?

AEW: I had been working on my fifth novel for two and a half years when my agent told me it was terrible. For months, I stumbled around in a haze of misery. During the hours I’d previously spent working, I read everything I could get my hands on.

I read Enrique’s Journey, the nonfiction account of a boy traveling from Honduras to reach his mother in America, after reading a profile of Sonia Nazario in the alumni magazine of Williams College, which we both attended. The book grabbed me immediately—-Nazario’s research was dangerous and important, and I wanted to read more about children like Enrique. I searched the Web for stories, transfixed by kids my own children’s ages who were walking away from everything they knew to try to reach their mothers and fathers in America. As I tucked him in at night, I tried to visualize my own ten–year–old son bringing my six–year–old (and one–year–old!) on such a dangerous trek. It was impossible to imagine.

I met Alexia Rodriguez, whose organization, Southwest Key, runs many of the shelters at the border. Alexia brought me to Brownsville, Texas, where she introduced me to unaccompanied minors and I spoke to them about writing.

I also talked to the children about why they had left, what horrors they had faced along the way, and what they hoped to find. One girl told me about watching her friend being attacked by an alligator and being forced by her -coyote to leave the ailing girl behind. I met a five–year–old whose parents had left him when he was an infant. They lived in New Jersey, and he was due to be reunited with them in the morning. I heard about boat trips, plane trips, and how hard it is to sleep on The Beast.

And I met children who had been assaulted. Some of the girls were pregnant—-their eyes dark and flat, their hair clean from the shelter showers. They wore pink sweatsuits and told me stories I will never forget.

That night, I lay awake, unable to sleep. It was excruciating to think about the kids just a few miles away. They were so brave and so alone. They were filled with a faith I envied, the belief that God was with them and that they would find peace (and be loved) in America. I tried to think of what to do to help them but came up with nothing.

In the middle of the night, I heard a voice, the first sentence of a new novel: My mother left when I was five years old. And though I never thought I’d hear the voice of a young Honduran girl in my imagination, I listened. In the morning, the entire arc of the novel was clear to me. I could get one fictional girl to her mother, and that was a small something.

CBK: Since Carla’s voice and story arc came to you so clearly, why did you decide to incorporate Alice into her story?

AEW: During my research, I watched some videos of Father Alejandro Solalinde Guerra, who runs a shelter for migrants in Ixtepec, Mexico. (Carla and Junior come to this shelter in the book.) Father Solalinde Guerra said something that resonated deeply with me: these children have the spiritual capital that Americans need. I was very struck by this thought, and found it to be true. The children I met at the border, who literally have no material goods, have a sense of faith and hope—-a belief that they are and will be taken care of—-that I am often lacking.

I wanted to create a character who has the trappings of the American Dream—-a successful business, a house, even a kind and supportive husband—-but who yearns for something else, something deeper. She needs the spiritual capital that Carla possesses in abundance.

The main characters in your novel Orphan Train come from very different backgrounds as well. In your mind, how do you see their stories as fitting together?

CBK: Similar to what you were saying about how Carla’s character came to you, I find that when you write novels you go on instinct much of the time. As I began writing about Molly, a seventeen–year–old Penobscot Indian foster child, believe it or not I didn’t immediately notice parallels to Vivian, a wealthy ninety–one–year–old widow. But as I wrote my way into the narrative I could see that in addition to some biographical parallels—-both characters have dead fathers and institutionalized mothers; both were passed from home to home and encountered prejudice because of cultural stereotypes; both held onto talismanic keepsakes from family members—-they are psychologically -similar. For both of them, change has been a defining principle; from a young age, they had to learn to adapt, to inhabit new identities. They’ve spent much of their lives minimizing risk, avoiding complicated entanglements, and keeping silent about the past. It’s not until Vivian—-in answer to Molly’s pointed questions—-begins to face the truth about what happened long ago that both of them have the courage to make changes in their lives.

AEW: As I read Orphan Train, I was struck with the thought that unaccompanied minors have a great deal in common with the children you write about. Do you think?

CBK: I do. There are so many parallels in these stories of the orphan train riders and the border kids. One thing that I’ve learned in my research is that every immigrant group that comes to this country faces some kind of hazing process. When people are assimilated, they tend to forget that their ancestors (or even near relatives) were once poor, dispossessed, and alien. These stories force us to face that fact.

AEW: I finished reading Orphan Train, closed the book, and continued to think about the strength those children found in the face of such profound disappointment. The unaccompanied minors I met were also incredibly courageous. . . . I hope that readers can listen to Carla’s story and be inspired.

A Conversation with David Liss

September 17th, 2015

The Day of Atonement_LissRandom House Reader’s Circle had the chance to ask David Liss, author of The Day of Atonement some questions about his research, history, and the differences between writing historical fiction and fantasy.

Random House Reader’s Circle: What was your inspiration for the novel?

David Liss: I first learned about the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 when I took my first eighteenth–century literature class in grad school, and it’s one of those things that always stuck in my imagination. Though it’s not well known by Americans today, it was a consciousness–changing event for eighteenth–century European intellectuals, who couldn’t quite comprehend how one of the world’s great cities could simply cease to exist. Usually when I’m finishing a book, I know exactly what I want to work on next. But after The Twelfth Enchantment, I didn’t have a clear idea, so I decided that maybe it was time to finally look into the earthquake. I began doing a little bit of light research on eighteenth–century Portugal in general to see if there was a story that would draw me in, and I became instantly fascinated with the political corruption, religious injustice, and economic ineptitude of the period. From there, I simply kept doing research until the story began to take shape. Originally I planned to write a sort of post–disaster novel in which I set up events for the earthquake fairly quickly, and then explored the aftermath in the bulk of the book. As I began writing the book, however, it became clear to me that it was Lisbon before the earthquake, not after, that really fascinated me.

RHRC: Sebastiao is an exceptional character in terms of skill, determination, and focus. What made you want to tell his story?

DL: Once I was fairly well steeped in the research for this book, I knew I wanted to write a revenge story, which seemed like a natural narrative for such an unjust society. Sebastiao took shape as I tried to figure out what sort of character would work best for this world. I liked the idea of someone who had been utterly broken by the injustice he’d suffered, so I began working from there. Revenge is always a losing proposition, of course, since it invariably leaves the seeker feeling empty afterward, so I wanted to write about someone who was looking for something more than justice. Sebastiao, troubled as he is, understands that vengeance is a process for him, not necessarily justice against those who have done wrong.

RHRC: The Day of Atonement is a return to historical fiction, after The Twelfth Enchantment, a novel with magical and supernatural elements. Do you find there are major differences between writing historical fiction and writing fantasy? Which do you prefer?

DL: When I write fantasy, it tends to be of the historical variety, which is usually very research–heavy, so there’s really not that much difference. I’m still working within certain limitations of history and culture—-as opposed to the sort of fantasy that takes place in a totally imagined world. I’m not sure if I prefer writing either one. Each has its own pleasures for me. That said, the two genres, in my view, are closely related. When you write about
periods of time before film or photography or sound recording, you have to make a lot of guesses about what life was like for your characters. They are often educated guesses, but you are still engaging in world–building and constructing an imaginative world for your reader to inhabit. If the physics and biology of that world are the same as ours, it’s historical fiction; if not, it’s fantasy.

RHRC: What were some of the specific challenges you faced in writing or researching this novel?

DL: The Day of Atonement presented some very specific challenges because Lisbon, as it existed before the earthquake, is almost entirely gone. A great deal of the work I did for this book involved trying to understand what life was like in destroyed Lisbon for people from all the various social strata. The English of this period were highly literate (by contemporary standards) and fascinated with themselves, so eighteenth–century London is extremely easy to research. Lisbon, by contrast, is less well recorded, so there was a lot of archival and detective work involved.

RHRC: What was your research process like?

DL: I tend to work from the broad to the particular. When I’m researching a culture I know almost nothing about, as I did with this book, I first look for the very general surveys of the material—-popular histories, or even books for younger readers. I want to understand the basics before I get into specifics, because otherwise I don’t really know what I’m looking at. Once I begin to have a sense of what interests me, I’ll read more scholarly works, and studies of specific people or events, or of cultural movements. From there I go to primary sources: letters, diaries, contemporary travel guides, and whatever else is available. Finally, when I have a near–final version of the book, I visit the place I’m writing about. I find if I go too early in the process, I’m not sufficiently focused; if I go later, I know exactly what I need to look for or at.

RHRC: Benjamin Weaver, the protagonist of several of your other novels, makes an appearance. What made you decide to bring him back? Did it feel strange to be writing about him from a different character’s perspective?

DL: There were certain similarities in the skill sets of the two characters, even though their personalities are very different, so I began to think it might be fun to have Weaver as a minor character in this book. Readers often contact me asking if I plan to write any more novels featuring Benjamin Weaver, and right now I have no intention of doing so, but it was interesting to think about him as an older, more settled figure. I’ve never had any interest in writing an entire novel about an older version of the character, so having him appear as a minor character here allowed me to imagine his life progressing without having to work a full narrative around it.

RHRC: The novel is set during a particularly tumultuous time in politics and religion. Do you see any lessons for the modern world in the realities of that setting?

DL: I tend to believe that every time is a tumultuous time for politics and religion—-which often serve, in my view, as an excuse for, rather than a cause of, aggression and animosity. I’m not sure there is any particularly insightful lesson to take away. There are always going to be those who will misuse and abuse power if given the chance. There are pretty universal occurrences, but I do find it interesting to see how they manifested in the past. Looking at these events through the lens of history can help to defamiliarize, and therefore shed light on, events in our own time.

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The Scent of Secrets: Jane Thynne’s Inspiration

September 17th, 2015

The Scent of Secrets_Thynne

Set in Europe, in 1938, during the tense run-up to war, and perfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, this gripping historical novel features the half-British, half-German actress (and wholly covert spy) Clara Vine, who finds herself enmeshed in a dangerous game of subterfuge.

Jane Thynne talks about what inspired her to write The Scent of Secrets…

A few streets away from Harrods in London’s Knightsbridge stands the anonymous, shiny black door of a private members’ club. From the outside, you would never know that the club is for agents who served in resistance organizations during WWII and beyond. But when you enter and climb the stairs you pass numerous photographs of female spies who served—-and mostly died—-in the field. It is deeply inspiring.

When I began writing about a British agent in Germany in the 1930s it was with the bravery of these women in mind. I had always wanted to write a novel set in Berlin. It was a city that went in a matter of months from being the most exciting place in Europe—-the center of sexual and cultural freedom, of Expressionist film and Bauhaus art—-to the most frightening and repressive. The idea of placing a female British agent not just in Berlin but at the heart of the Nazi regime itself was irresistible.

Having been a journalist, both in TV and newspapers, for most of my career, I was keen on documentary accuracy, so even though I was writing fiction, I spent weeks tramping Berlin’s streets, exploring the prewar buildings that remained and picturing those that had been destroyed. It was a strange process in which my imaginary Berlin—-the 1930s version—-existed like a palimpsest alongside the hastily erected and often ugly postwar buildings. Parts of Goebbels’s Propaganda Ministry still stand, and the Babelsberg film studio remains in its entirety, as does Goering’s Air Ministry, but we can no longer see Hitler’s Reich Chancellery, and the bunker where Hitler and Eva Braun died is buried beneath a parking lot. Yet it wasn’t just the official buildings that mattered. Deciding where an actress like Clara Vine might live was just as important. In the end I chose Winterfeldtstrasse, a lovely tree–lined street in Schöneberg just a block away from where Christopher Isherwood wrote the novel that was filmed as Cabaret.

The streets of Berlin were the easy bit. The chief challenge of my research was that I was writing about women. There are barely enough libraries in the world to contain the books written about the male side of the Third Reich—-the leaders, the politics, the campaigns—-but the experience of German women seems to have gone largely unrecorded. What was it like to be in the League of German Girls? To attend a Bride School or a weekly Mother’s Course? And in the upper echelons of society, how did it feel to be married to a man who became a monster? Were the Nazi leaders’ wives complicit, or did they try to dissuade their men from their crimes?

The answers were not easy to find. No one has wanted to translate the memoirs of women like Lina Heydrich into English, so I brushed up on my German and spent time buried in the London Library, a beautiful Georgian building in St. James’s Square. And the information I found provided for me a whole new perspective on the private life of the Third Reich. The domestic details of the women’s lives seem so fragile and recognizably ordinary beside the war machine that their husbands were preparing. While I was researching the life of Eva Braun I read a few lines about her love of perfume, how she adored Worth’s Je Reviens and liked to create her own concoctions. This was, of course, just another irony of life in Nazi Germany—-cosmetics, especially French ones, were frowned on for ordinary women. Yet that detail, like a snatch of perfume itself, lit an idea in my mind. I thought about the power of scent to evoke feelings—-not just childhood memories, but unsettling emotions and fear too—-and I decided that perfume should be a theme at the heart of my story.

Like the door of that secret agents’ club in London, the wartime lives of German women are easy to pass by. But you only understand how a totalitarian society works when you see it on the human scale. To me, glimpsing the personal lives of the senior men through their relationships with their wives and girlfriends only makes their activities more disturbing.

—-Jane Thynne

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Discussion Questions: The Day of Atonement

September 14th, 2015

The Day of Atonement_LissThe bestselling author of such novels as A Conspiracy of Paper and The Whiskey Rebels continues his masterly run of “atmospheric” (The Washington Post), “page-turning” (The Baltimore Sun), “tremendously smart” (Newsweek) historical thrillers. In The Day of Atonement, David Liss blends meticulous period detail with crackling adventure in the tale of one man’s quest for justice—and retribution.

1.  Two big themes of the novel are vengeance and mercy. Do you think the two are mutually exclusive? Can you be both vengeful and merciful at the same time?

2.  Discuss the meaning of the title The Day of Atonement.

3.  The novel ends before we know how Roberta responds to Sebastiao. What do you imagine she says to him? What would you say to him in her place?

4.  Do you see Sebastiao’s concept of justice evolve at all throughout the novel? If so, how, and what do you think prompts the change?

5.  Comparing his own deception to Roberta Carver’s, Sebastiao thinks, “The Carvers’ crime against Settewell had been unforgiveable. It was not a slightly unscrupulous take on usual trade—-it was theft, pure and simple. What I intended was, of course, much the same, but my scheme had the virtue of being retaliatory” (page 209). Do you agree with the idea that his actions are somehow more justifiable because they were preceded first by another crime? Is revenge ever justifiable?

6.  Which of the characters in this novel do you most identify with, and why?

7.  At the start of Chapter 1, Sebastiao declares, “I am not a kind person. . . . If I am a monster, however, I am monster made, not born” (page 19). What does this opening suggest about the nature of goodness and evil? After reading the novel, do you agree or disagree with his declaration?

8.  Compare and contrast Roberta and Gabriela. What do you think the two women represent to Sebastiao, and how do you see that change over the course of the novel?

9.  At the end of his final confrontation with Azinheiro, Sebastiao is faced with a very important choice. Were you surprised by the choice he made? In his shoes, do you think you would have made the same one?

10. How do you think your opinion of the characters might change if this were a book of nonfiction, and not a novel?

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