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Reader's Guides

Reader’s Guide: Q&A with Carla Buckley and Kimberly McCreight

Tuesday, October 14th, 2014

9780553393736Carla Buckley’s suspenseful family drama The Deepest Secret goes on sale in paperback next week! Kimberly McCreight, the New York Times bestselling author of Reconstructing Amelia, called the book “Elegant, poignant, and utterly riveting . . . a suspenseful tale of love, forgiveness, and sacrifice that will leave you asking how far a mother really should go to protect her family and wondering about the cost of the secrets we all keep, even from ourselves.”

Kimberly, who is at work on her second novel, How I Lost Her, chatted with Carla about The Deepest Secret. Read their entire conversation here!

KM: This is your third novel. How is The Deepest Secret similar to or different from The Things That Keep Us Here and Invisible? How has your writing process changed—if at all—over time?
CB: I would say that all my novels have the drumbeat of a thriller with the heartbeat of a family drama. I came to write this way almost by accident.
I’d written eight unpublished traditional mysteries when I decided to change course and tackle a question that had been haunting me for some time: how would I protect my family if the worst came to pass and the H5N1 flu strain in China turned pandemic? That story became The Things That Keep Us Here, a novel set entirely in one family’s living room as a pandemic rages around them. In my second novel, Invisible, I asked myself how much hardship a family could sustain before it broke apart. I set that story in a fictitious northern Minnesota town reeling from a deadly environmental contamination.
In some ways, The Deepest Secret is like both of my previous works. In it, I also follow a family already in crisis forced to their breaking point by a devastating event. I explore the same themes of community and moral obligation; I ask, who are we when no one’s looking—or when we think no one’s looking? But in other ways, The Deepest Secret ventures into new territory for me. There’s no global threat, no impending doom hovering overhead. I focused more sharply on a much smaller scale—eight suburban houses ranged along a cul-de-sac—and to my surprise, found my story expanding into something much bigger.
At heart, The Deepest Secret is about one boy growing up and the impact that one small life can have on so many others. It’s a story about love in all its guises and in the end, love prevails—which is the happiest ending of all.

KM: This is your third novel. How is The Deepest Secret similar to or different from The Things That Keep Us Here and Invisible? How has your writing process changed—if at all—over time?

CB: I would say that all my novels have the drumbeat of a thriller with the heartbeat of a family drama. I came to write this way almost by accident.

I’d written eight unpublished traditional mysteries when I decided to change course and tackle a question that had been haunting me for some time: how would I protect my family if the worst came to pass and the H5N1 flu strain in China turned pandemic? That story became The Things That Keep Us Here, a novel set entirely in one family’s living room as a pandemic rages around them. In my second novel, Invisible, I asked myself how much hardship a family could sustain before it broke apart. I set that story in a fictitious northern Minnesota town reeling from a deadly environmental contamination.

In some ways, The Deepest Secret is like both of my previous works. In it, I also follow a family already in crisis forced to their breaking point by a devastating event. I explore the same themes of community and moral obligation; I ask, who are we when no one’s looking—or when we think no one’s looking? But in other ways, The Deepest Secret ventures into new territory for me. There’s no global threat, no impending doom hovering overhead. I focused more sharply on a much smaller scale—eight suburban houses ranged along a cul-de-sac—and to my surprise, found my story expanding into something much bigger.

At heart, The Deepest Secret is about one boy growing up and the impact that one small life can have on so many others. It’s a story about love in all its guises and in the end, love prevails—which is the happiest ending of all.

Keep in touch with Carla on Facebook!

Reader’s Guide: Recommended reads from the author of THE NIGHT GARDEN

Friday, October 10th, 2014
I’ve always had a fascination with poisonous plants. I think it started when I was a little kid and my siblings and I used to play in the woods, swinging from vines and carving forts out of thick brambles. A bush of small red berries grew “down back”; they were bright, tempting little things, but we were told under no circumstances were we allowed to eat them. We didn’t, of course. But sometimes we liked to pretend they were food, tossing them into fake salads as we provisioned ourselves for grand journeys into imaginary lands. I’m not sure that I ever stopped wondering what those berries would taste like—everything about them said, Eat me!, as if they might make a person grow very tall or very small.
As an adult, of course, a person encounters other kinds of temptations, the allure of things that we know are bad for us but that we cling to or desire anyway. The allure of poisonous plants never stopped calling to me. And so when my wonderful editor asked for my next proposal, I decided it was time to indulge in my fascination—from the safe distance of the written word!
Alas, only about half a percent of the research I did actually ended up in the story (the characters demanded most of the book’s “real estate,” and rightly so). But there’s a great, fascinating world of folklore and science surrounding poisonous plants out there, and if you’re curious, or if you’re just looking for your next read based on something that sparked your curiosity in The Night Garden, here are a few books I’d recommend.
Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne—This was the tale that started it all, twenty years ago when I first read it in high school. The story is about a beautiful and mysterious woman who flits about an enchanted Italian garden and can kill insects with her breath. “This lovely woman . . . had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison!—her embrace death! Is not this a marvellous tale?” I loved the concept, and wanted desperately to love the story, but for various reasons, I just couldn’t. The ending got me. (You should read it, seriously. It’s short, and worth discussion). For a very long time, the story haunted me, even bothered me—I thought about it again and again over the years. The Night Garden was, I suppose, an effort to reconcile my feelings about the story as well as a chance to indulge my curiosity about poisonous plants.
The North American Guide To Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas—I bought this book when I first started getting serious about The Night Garden, and I left it sitting on the dining room table one day when my husband got home. He picked it up, looked at me, and asked, “Is there something I should be worried about?” For many years he’s been incredibly patient on walks through the woods with me as I’m constantly stopping to either consult my various guidebooks or take pictures for future identifications. This book is a bit too big to cart into the woods, but it’s a great read for a serious-minded student of poisonous and dangerous plants.
Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart—If you’re looking for a wild, fun, fascinating, thrilling, unbelievable read about all the incredible factoids in the world of dangerous and obnoxious plants, this is your book. I adored it, front to back. It’s a brief, highly readable look at the science and stories that emerge when humans and plants collide. Oh, and apparently the author has a garden of poison plants, which just proves the adage that life is stranger than fiction.
Turn Here Sweet Corn by Atina Diffley—I read this book as one of many that I hoped would give me a glimpse into farm life. Some of my own family members were farmers, and I have childhood memories of running through the fallow fields of an old family farm that has since been sold to a developer. Atina’s book is intimate, emotionally generous, authentic, and engaging. The story of how she lost a farm to urban expansion is heartbreaking, but her family’s perseverance is an inspiration. I think of her often when I’m in the grocery store and looking at the produce section, wondering (at her prompting) why it’s the organic vegetables that get labeled, instead of the other way around. This book was a huge eye-opener and if you’re interested in farm life, the organic food movement, and environmentalism, give this a read.
The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman—One of my favorite books in recent years, this short story collection traces the life of a Massachusetts town from its frontier settlement days to the present. It’s chocked full of folklore with hints of magic—and to me, these stories feel quintessentially American. I swear, reading it fills your nose with the smells of forest soil and freshly sawn wood. This is on my keeper shelf to read again and again.
Thanks for reading The Night Garden. I would love to hear from you by email on my website (www​.WriterLisaVanAllen​.com) or on my Facebook page. And if your book group reads this story, please be in touch! I may be able to Skype or call in.

9780345537836Author Lisa Van Allen’s second novel, The Night Garden, went on sale earlier this week! To celebrate, we asked her to share some of her favorite books — and if you enjoyed The Night Garden, we think you’ll be interested in her suggestions.

I’ve always had a fascination with poisonous plants. I think it started when I was a little kid and my siblings and I used to play in the woods, swinging from vines and carving forts out of thick brambles. A bush of small red berries grew “down back”; they were bright, tempting little things, but we were told under no circumstances were we allowed to eat them. We didn’t, of course. But sometimes we liked to pretend they were food, tossing them into fake salads as we provisioned ourselves for grand journeys into imaginary lands. I’m not sure that I ever stopped wondering what those berries would taste like—everything about them said, Eat me!, as if they might make a person grow very tall or very small.

As an adult, of course, a person encounters other kinds of temptations, the allure of things that we know are bad for us but that we cling to or desire anyway. The allure of poisonous plants never stopped calling to me. And so when my wonderful editor asked for my next proposal, I decided it was time to indulge in my fascination—from the safe distance of the written word!

Alas, only about half a percent of the research I did actually ended up in the story (the characters demanded most of the book’s “real estate,” and rightly so). But there’s a great, fascinating world of folklore and science surrounding poisonous plants out there, and if you’re curious, or if you’re just looking for your next read based on something that sparked your curiosity in The Night Garden, here are a few books I’d recommend.

Rappaccini’s Daughter by Nathaniel Hawthorne—This was the tale that started it all, twenty years ago when I first read it in high school. The story is about a beautiful and mysterious woman who flits about an enchanted Italian garden and can kill insects with her breath. “This lovely woman . . . had been nourished with poisons from her birth upward, until her whole nature was so imbued with them, that she herself had become the deadliest poison in existence. Poison was her element of life. With that rich perfume of her breath, she blasted the very air. Her love would have been poison!—her embrace death! Is not this a marvellous tale?” I loved the concept, and wanted desperately to love the story, but for various reasons, I just couldn’t. The ending got me. (You should read it, seriously. It’s short, and worth discussion). For a very long time, the story haunted me, even bothered me—I thought about it again and again over the years. The Night Garden was, I suppose, an effort to reconcile my feelings about the story as well as a chance to indulge my curiosity about poisonous plants.

The North American Guide To Common Poisonous Plants and Mushrooms by Nancy J. Turner and Patrick von Aderkas—I bought this book when I first started getting serious about The Night Garden, and I left it sitting on the dining room table one day when my husband got home. He picked it up, looked at me, and asked, “Is there something I should be worried about?” For many years he’s been incredibly patient on walks through the woods with me as I’m constantly stopping to either consult my various guidebooks or take pictures for future identifications. This book is a bit too big to cart into the woods, but it’s a great read for a serious-minded student of poisonous and dangerous plants.

Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart—If you’re looking for a wild, fun, fascinating, thrilling, unbelievable read about all the incredible factoids in the world of dangerous and obnoxious plants, this is your book. I adored it, front to back. It’s a brief, highly readable look at the science and stories that emerge when humans and plants collide. Oh, and apparently the author has a garden of poison plants, which just proves the adage that life is stranger than fiction.

Turn Here Sweet Corn by Atina Diffley—I read this book as one of many that I hoped would give me a glimpse into farm life. Some of my own family members were farmers, and I have childhood memories of running through the fallow fields of an old family farm that has since been sold to a developer. Atina’s book is intimate, emotionally generous, authentic, and engaging. The story of how she lost a farm to urban expansion is heartbreaking, but her family’s perseverance is an inspiration. I think of her often when I’m in the grocery store and looking at the produce section, wondering (at her prompting) why it’s the organic vegetables that get labeled, instead of the other way around. This book was a huge eye-opener and if you’re interested in farm life, the organic food movement, and environmentalism, give this a read.

The Red Garden by Alice Hoffman—One of my favorite books in recent years, this short story collection traces the life of a Massachusetts town from its frontier settlement days to the present. It’s chocked full of folklore with hints of magic—and to me, these stories feel quintessentially American. I swear, reading it fills your nose with the smells of forest soil and freshly sawn wood. This is on my keeper shelf to read again and again.

Thanks for reading The Night Garden. I would love to hear from you by email on my website (www​.WriterLisaVanAllen​.com) or on my Facebook page. And if your book group reads this story, please be in touch! I may be able to Skype or call in.

Reader’s Guide: UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY by Nancy Horan

Monday, October 6th, 2014

978-0-345-51654-1Have you read the newest book from New York Times bestselling author Nancy Horan? Under the Wide and Starry Sky, her poignant retelling of the improbable love story of Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny, is now available in paperback! There is plenty to discuss in this novel that USA Todaycalled “A richly imagined [novel] of love, laughter, pain and sacrifice…”

1. In order to separate from her unfaithful husband, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne takes her children across the continental U.S. and the Atlantic to study art in Europe. Do you think it’s the wisest choice, given the impact on her children? Would you make a similar decision under the circumstances? Are there other options she could have pursued?

2. At first glance, Fanny and Robert Louis Stevenson might seem an unlikely match. Why do you think they are so drawn to each other? Why does their relationship endure?

3. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde has become a phrase synonymous with the idea of the divided self. At any point in the novel, does Louis seem to live a double life? Does Fanny? In what ways do Fanny, Louis, and other characters struggle with their own identities?

4. After criticizing a story of Fanny’s, W. E. Henley incites a quarrel with Louis that threatens their friendship. Does Fanny deserve the criticism? Do you think she and Louis enhance or hinder each other’s artistic ambitions and accomplishments?

5. “Sargent was down again and painted a portrait of me walking about in my own dining-room, in my own velveteen jacket, and twisting as I go my own moustache; at one corner a glimpse of my wife, in an Indian dress, and seated in a chair that was once my grandfather’s,” wrote Louis, in an 1885 letter describing John Singer Sargent’s painting Robert Louis Stevenson and His Wife. “It is, I think, excellent, but is too eccentric to be exhibited.” If you can, look  up  Sargent’s  painting (1885; Steve Wynn collection); or just consider Louis’s description above. What do you think of this portrayal of Fanny and Louis?

6. Many of us feel the need to shape a story out of the facts of our lives. In making these stories, we sometimes create myths about ourselves. Does Fanny invent myths about herself? Does Louis do the same?

7. The Stevensons travel all over the globe in search of the ideal climate for their family, from Switzerland to the South Seas. How do landscape and environment affect each of them?

8. Many of Louis’s friends find Fanny overprotective of her husband. Do you agree or disagree? Are her actions justified?

9. In Samoa, late in their marriage, Louis suggests that the work Fanny does—her gardening for example, of which she writes in her diary, “a blossom on my rose tree is like a poem written by my son”—is not that of an artist. Do you agree with this? What does Fanny consider her art to be, and how does it manifest itself and impact those around her? Do you agree with her views?

10. Why do you think Horan chooses “Out of my country and myself I go” as the epigraph for this book?

11. What is Robert Louis Stevenson’s literary legacy? In what ways does reading Under the Wide and Starry Sky change your view of him and his writing?

Reader’s Guide: Q&A with Alison Weir, author of Elizabeth of York

Tuesday, September 30th, 2014

978-0-345-52137-8History buffs, this one’s for you! Many are familiar with the story of the much-married King Henry VIII of England and the celebrated reign of his daughter, Elizabeth I. But it is often forgotten that the life of the first Tudor queen, Elizabeth of York, Henry’s mother and Elizabeth’s grandmother, spanned one of England’s most dramatic and perilous periods. Now New York Times bestselling author and acclaimed historian Alison Weir presents Elizabeth of York, the first modern biography of this extraordinary woman, whose very existence united the realm and ensured the survival of the Plantagenet bloodline. Alison had a conversation with us about writing nonfiction, how she does her research, and much more. Check out the full Q&A here!

RHRC:Do you think that historians bring to their work something of their own perceptions and moral codes?

AW: Perhaps, but I think it is important to be as objective as possible, and to look at the subject within the context and moral compass of the age in which they lived. I have been accused, for example, of calling Katherine Howard promiscuous, because she took lovers before and after her marriage to Henry VIII; in modern terms that probably doesn’t make her so, but people in Tudor England certainly made such a judgment. It is tempting to judge historical figures by our own standards, but it should be resisted.

RHRC: Did you learn anything surprising from writing Elizabeth of York? If so, what was it?

AW: When researching a subject in depth, you always learn a lot about them, even if you thought you were conversant with them beforehand. You never know what the sources will reveal or how they enable you to achieve new perspectives. In researching this book I discovered a link in the royal accounts that literally made my jaw drop. It connected Elizabeth of York with Sir James Tyrell, the man who apparently confessed to murdering her brothers, the Princes in the Tower. No one had made the connection before.

RHRC: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in the book?

AW: Not a thing.

Reader’s Guide: Q&A with Nancy Horan, author of UNDER THE WIDE AND STARRY SKY

Thursday, September 25th, 2014

978-0-345-51654-1Nancy Horan’s newest book, Under the Wide and Starry Sky, is now available in paperback! The book tells the improbable love story of Scottish writer Robert Louis Stevenson and his tempestuous American wife, Fanny. Joining her for the Q&A is Lauren Belfer, author of the novels A Fierce Radiance (a Washington Post Best Novel of the Year, an NPR Best Mystery of the Year, and a New York Times Editors’ Choice Book) and City of Light (a New York Times Notable Book and New York Times bestseller).

Lauren Belfer: When I first heard that Under the Wide and Starry Sky was about Robert Louis Stevenson, I thought—perfect, I’ll be spending time with an old friend. Was I ever wrong about that! Under the Wide and Starry Sky captures a Stevenson I never imagined and a story I never knew, a story that’s filled with adventure, anguish, and heartbreak. How did you discover the story of Robert Louis Stevenson and his American wife, Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne?

Nancy Horan: was visiting the Monterey Bay area and discovered that Stevenson had lived there in 1879. I wondered what the Scottish author of Treasure Island was doing there. I soon learned that he had come to California seeking to marry an American woman he had met in France. Naturally I was curious about the woman. Who was this Fanny Van de Grift Osbourne who so upended Stevenson’s life? I did some initial research about both of them, and when I learned about their amazing life together, I knew I had the concept for my next novel.

LB: Many readers wonder about the line between fact and fiction in “historical fiction.” When letters, journals, and diaries are available, do you quote the actual words of your characters, the way a biographer might? Do you have any personal rules to guide you, when you put real people into scenes and conversations that are imaginary?

NH: My general rule is that because these were real people, I try to get it as right as I can. I feel I owe it to them. I stick to agreed-upon facts as a framework, because it was the historical story that drew me in the first place. The dialogue is invented, except for a few quotes. When I use these lines I put them into the mouths of the people who spoke them. If I quote from a diary or letter, I put it in italics, and if it is more than a couple of sentences, I make note of it in the Afterword. Because Louis was a prolific letter writer and Fanny was a diary keeper, I was sometimes able to write dialogue informed by how the characters were feeling at the time. But people are not always forthcoming in their written correspondence or diaries. Even with the rich resource material available for this book, much interpretation and imagining took place.

Read the rest of their Q&A here, and connect with Nancy on Facebook!

Reader’s Guide: THE MILL RIVER REDEMPTION by Darcie Chan

Monday, September 8th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-08-27 at 3.04.15 PM Have you read the book everyone is raving about?

An enchanting storyteller, Chan is one of those rare authors who make you feel more fully alive.”
—Elizabeth Letts, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Eighty-Dollar Champion


Like Elizabeth Letts, you’ll be drawn into Chan’s Mill River series. Dip in with your book club, and enjoy these discussion questions from Random House Reader’s Circle!

1. In the beginning of The Mill River Redemption, Josie DiSanti is traumatized and frightened. Over the course of the story, however, she becomes strong, self-sufficient, and confident. What do you feel is the single biggest factor in her transformation?

2. As a single parent, Josie tries to be everything to and provide everything for her daughters Rose and Emily. Given her situation, what do you feel were her greatest successes and failures as a parent? What might she have done differently?

3. Josie has to deal with an unpleasant boss in her first job as a single parent. Have you encountered a “Ned Circle”—i.e., someone who intentionally tried to make things difficult for you—in your own life or career? If so, how did you handle the situation?

4. As young adults, Rose and Emily DiSanti experience a terrible tragedy and become estranged, and Josie spends many years trying to help them reconcile. If you were in Emily’s position, could you forgive Rose for what she did? If you were in Rose’s position, could you ask Emily for forgiveness?

5. In your experience, is trying to forgive someone easier or more difficult if you love the person seeking the forgiveness?

6. Daisy Delaine repeatedly seeks to apologize to Rose for her perceived transgression at Josie’s wake. Do you think Rose’s response to Daisy is an expression of personal animosity or a result of the influence of alcohol?

7. How does Rose evolve from the moment she arrives in Mill River for the summer to the end of the story? Did your feelings toward her change over the course of the book?

8. Emily returns to Mill River to honor her mother’s wishes and also to confront her own past. Despite all that has happened, do you think she still loves her sister? Does she change as a person as events unfold? At the end of the story, do you believe she will really be able to forgive Rose for what she did?

9. Claudia Simon struggles with feelings of insecurity, even though Kyle gives her no reason to doubt his feelings until she sees him coming out of Emily’s house. If you had been in Claudia’s position, what would you have done at that point?

10. Ivy’s little bookstore is a labor of love and her life’s work. How does it reflect her personality?

11. Josie is desperate to see her girls’ estrangement end. Does she go too far in her efforts to force their reconciliation? Do you think that what she does is worth it in the end? What would you have done had you been in her position?

12. As a “recovering spoon addict,” Father O’Brien manages to keep his compulsion under control in this novel. Do you think that he will continue to refrain from stealing spoons, or do you think he will eventually relapse? Does his grief over Mary McAllister’s death have anything to do with his newfound self-control?

13. Sheldon sees Rose at an experimental theater performance and is taken with her immediately. Do you believe in love at first sight? If so, is it the kind of love that can withstand the challenges inherent in most marriages?

14. Near the end of the book, Josie refers to Father O’Brien as “a priceless antique that’s still functional.” Is there, or has there been, an elderly person in your life who fits that description? Who is or was it, and what made the person so special to you?

Join the conversation with Darcie Chan on Facebook and Twitter!

Reader’s Guide: LISETTE’S LIST by Susan Vreeland

Thursday, August 28th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-08-27 at 3.26.45 PM We’re recommending Susan Vreeland’s Lisette’s List, so if you or your book club choose it for a fall selection then be sure to enjoy these book club discussion questions!

1. Why did the novel need to begin with Pascal? How was he an important presence throughout the novel and an influence in Lisette’s deepening character?

2. What were the qualities that Lisette appreciated about André? About Maxime? Did this difference affect her love for both of them? How?

3. As Lisette was becoming more comfortable in Roussillon, what did she find in it that she liked, or even loved? As a reader, did you want her to make this adjustment, or were you holding out for a complete and speedy return to Paris? If she had moved back to Paris right after the end of the war, what would she have lost in addition to the paintings?

4. What made Lisette so conflicted about Bernard? What allowed her even to speak to him? Every gift he gave her had consequences. Should she have rejected and destroyed each one like she did the stockings? Were all the gifts similarly motivated and did they reveal the same qualities in Bernard? Was he wholly a bad man?

5. What constraints made finding the paintings take so long? How did Lisette’s changing emotional state contribute to the delay?

6. Was Héloïse a collaborator? Should she have been punished? Should Bernard have been punished? Should he have been removed from his post? In your mind, did his motives in siding with the Occupiers justify his stance? At one point in the revelation scene between Bernard and Lisette, she said, “I could charge you not just as a thief, but as a collaborator.” Why didn’t she? Do you respond differently to Bernard and to Héloïse?

7. With Maxime’s experience in the art world, he spoke at length in Chapter Twenty-three about what makes a painting great. Is there any criterion that he overlooked? Select a painting you love by any painter and apply Maxime’s criteria to it. What insightful observation about life or the world or yourself does the painting offer you?

8. How did the peripheral characters—Maurice, Sister Marie Pierre, Héloïse, Louise, Odette, Madame Bonnelly, Aimé Bonhomme—complement each other in influencing Lisette?

9. Consider the theme of articulation and communication. How did the scenes with Maxime and Lisette in the bories introduce this theme? What characters have a problem with communication? Under what circumstances do actions speak louder than words?

10. The letter by Marc Chagall to the artists of Paris is historically accurate except for mentioning the cause of Bella’s death. What effect did this letter have on Lisette, not just in terms of her emotional reaction but her subsequent thinking and actions? What did it enlarge for her? What did it make you realize about the possible loss of France’s art legacy? What would the effect of that loss be on France and French people? On the world?

11. In what way does Lisette’s List of Hungers and Vows differ from the popularized “bucket list” of contemporary usage? What was its purpose for her? Should she have added any hunger or vow that actually motivated her and that was missing? Why wasn’t “Participate in the art world in Paris” on her list? If you were to write such a list for yourself, what items might your list include?

12. In Chapter Sixteen, Lisette considers that it might be a higher art to invent a painting by assembling elements from one’s heart like Chagall did rather than painting only what one actually sees. She imagines such a painting of her own. What elements of her own life are reflected in her painting? What elements in your life might be reflected in such a painting if you were to paint your own Chagall?

13. What did you learn about art and its potential effect? About the region? About the Provençal character? About the war? Any war? Did any of these elements change your thinking?

Happy Reading! And be sure to stay in touch with Susan on her Facebook page!

Author Spotlight: Darcie Chan’s 6 Favorite Books

Wednesday, August 27th, 2014

Screen shot 2014-08-27 at 3.04.15 PMWe asked New York Times bestselling author Darcie Chan, author of The Mill River Redemption, to share her 6 favorite books with us. She returned with a great list!

Darcie Chan’s Top Six Favorite Reads

I have loved reading all of my life. I found it very difficult to choose only six books as my favorites, as there are so many more that I could have included here! But, each of the following books is simply wonderful, and I hope that you enjoy reading them as much as I did.

Slow Way Home by Michael Morris

This gorgeous novel is variously funny, gut-wrenching, frustrating, and uplifting. Like all the books on this list, I thought it was beautifully written. The characters are utterly real and compelling, particularly eight-year-old Brandon, from whose perspective the story is written. The plot focuses on his grandparents’ struggle to protect him from their daughter, who runs off with her latest boyfriend and abandons him at a bus station. I’m the mother of a little boy, and Brandon’s plight touched me deeply. My heart ached for him and cheered with him at the end. Also, I was impressed by the author’s skill at pulling the reader into the story. The emotional resonance of the story is great, and I could almost feel the humidity of the South settling against my skin.

The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey

There are very few books that completely blow me away, but this first novel did. Apparently, it had the same effect on many other people, as it was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize! In this story about a childless couple in 1920s Alaska, the author’s choice of language is exquisite, and I was surprised at how skillfully the author wreaked havoc with my sensibilities. First, I was convinced that a wild little girl seen by the couple was a figment of their imaginations. But then, I started to believe the girl was real before being slung once again in the opposite direction. The answer is revealed in a moving, surprising ending. This story is unforgettable.

Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived by Ralph Helfer

I tend to read mostly fiction, but this is a nonfiction book that I absolutely loved. It is a captivating story of the lifelong bond between a boy and a female Asian elephant. The story takes the reader from Europe, through the exotic teak forests of India, and then to the circus in the United States. It’s an amazing testament to the intelligence of elephants and of their ability to form lasting friendships with people.

Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman

This story has so many wonderful aspects: a clever, creative plot, a cast of mostly lovable, oddball characters, and great humor, all wrapped up with a touch of whimsy. I had such a strong desire to pack up and move into the old Owens house—I could see it so clearly in my mind’s eye—and to get to know its inhabitants. And, having two younger sisters myself, I could truly appreciate the bond between Sally and Gillian. This is their coming-of-age story, one that ends with each sister finally finding happiness. I’ve reread this book several times, which is unusual for me, and I’ve come to think of it as an old friend.

A Gift of Magic by Lois Duncan

I first read this story as a preteen and it captivated me, so much so that I reread it as an adult and enjoyed it just as much! After all, who hasn’t wondered what it would be like to be able to read other people’s minds? This is a story about three children, each of whom is blessed with a special gift. I love the relationships between the siblings in this book, too, and I was constantly guessing about what would happen next. This is a suspenseful story with a heartwarming ending.

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith

This is my all-time favorite book. It was first published in 1943, and it provides a fascinating, in-depth look at a slice of American society in the early twentieth century. It is written with unflinching honesty, and many of the situations described are difficult to read emotionally, but the rewards of the story are just as great. Francie, the protagonist, is an incredible role model. This is her survival story, one with lessons that are still relevant today. What Francie achieves in the face of poverty and adversity is inspiring and exceptional.

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A Letter to Readers from John Grisham

Wednesday, August 13th, 2014

Grisham_Sycamore Row A letter to readers from John Grisham about Sycamore Row.

When A Time to Kill was published in 1989 it sold a few copies around Memphis, Jackson, and a couple of other hot spots in Mississippi, but it was unnoticed by the rest of the world. As an eager rookie, I was dreaming of royalties, foreign rights, a movie deal, and perhaps a larger publishing contract. None of these things materialized, not in 1989 anyway. The book was ignored; my tiny publisher printed five thousand copies, and we couldn’t give them away. The Memphis newspaper trashed it and the Jackson paper refused to review it.
But it proved resilient. My second, third, and fourth books followed quickly, along with their movie adaptations, and somewhere in that frenzy A Time to Kill was discovered. One day in the summer of 1994 I caught myself gawking at the New York Times bestseller list—all four books were at the top, with A Time to Kill number one in mass market. By then, it had sold five million copies.

And the book has remained popular. Its own movie version was released in 1996, did well at the box office, and in all likelihood it’s somewhere on cable tonight. Today, after thirty books, A Time to Kill is still the bestselling book I’ve written. And it’s by far the favorite, at least according to those who get close enough to offer an opinion. Countless times I’ve heard, “Hey, I like your books, but the first one is the best.”

More often than not, this is followed up with a quick, “How about a sequel? Another story about Jake and Lucien and Harry Rex?” To which I usually respond, “I’m waiting on a story.”

And so I’ve waited. For over twenty years I’ve thought about Jake Brigance and the characters in his world, and the aftermath of the Hailey trial. I’ve wondered how Jake was doing in Clanton, a deeply divided town, with the Klan hot on his tail, his home destroyed by a firebomb, his friends carrying guns to protect him. How were Jake and Carla coping as they picked up the pieces and started over? Did the Hailey trial make him a star, a lawyer in demand? Or was he still struggling to pay the rent?

I’ve gone back briefly to Ford County in other books, but never one involving Jake. Harry Rex Vonner, one of my favorites, has made a few cameos here and there, but nothing of substance. Lucien Wilbanks has appeared occasionally, but only in passing.

When I finished my second book, The Firm, my plan was to return to Clanton for another story. Then, I would write another legal thriller. Back and forth, back and forth, I would carve out my turf on the literary landscape with two kinds of books—the legal thrillers and the Ford County novels. Surely, somewhere in there I could find my niche and sell some books. The sudden success of The Firm, though, changed things dramatically, and I felt the urgency to pursue the legal thrillers. And, after twenty of them, I still enjoy piecing together the plots and pursuing the issues.

But Jake has never been far from my creative thoughts. Two years ago, a novel began to take shape. Unlike A Time to Kill, a story inspired by real events, this one has no basis in truth. Now that Sycamore Row is finished, I’m not sure where the idea came from, at least not in fact. I suppose the inspiration comes from the characters because, in writing it, I often felt as though I was having dinner with old friends. It was a delight to catch up with them, to hear their voices again, and to remember how they were thirty years ago. I hope they haven’t changed much.

My wife, Renée, wasn’t too keen on a sequel and her reason was simple: When I began writing A Time to Kill in 1984, I was the hungry young lawyer looking for the big case. I was struggling at the office and wondering where the clients were. We were living the life of Jake and Carla in a small town in Mississippi, just getting by and trying to survive. Happy, ambitious, but not sure the law was our ticket to success. That was a long time ago, and Renée worried it would be difficult to recapture the authenticity of that writer’s voice. So much has changed. She was also worried about the possibility of a cool reception to a sequel. “They rarely work, you know?” She said more than once. “Fine,” I said, “we just won’t call it a sequel.”

And so we’re not. Renée read the first chapters of Sycamore Row and was soon on board. The story came together nicely and writing it became a pleasure. As always, it took about six months, not a long time in the writing business, but long enough. The last six weeks are usually tedious and tiring, and the deadline looms and I grow a little tired of my characters. Not so with Sycamore Row. Almost daily, I was tempted to, as we say, “chase a rabbit,” or, in other words, pursue some long- winded and colorful tale involving Harry Rex or Lucien or another character. I could have written a thousand pages, but at some point the story had to end.

So I saved some material for the next time out.

John Grisham Charlottesville, Virginia October 15, 2013

Be sure to check out our RHRC book club questions for Sycamore Row here!

Reader’s Guide: SYCAMORE ROW by John Grisham

Thursday, August 7th, 2014

Grisham_Sycamore Row John Grisham takes you back to where it all began. One of the most popular novels of our time, A Time to Kill established John Grisham as the master of the legal thriller. Now we return to Ford County as Jake Brigance finds himself embroiled in a fiercely controversial trial that exposes a tortured history of racial tensionin Sycamore Row.

Questions for Discussion

1. How is the novel shaped by the place in which it’s set? How would the story be different if it were set elsewhere? In a big city? In the North?

2. How is the novel shaped by the era in which it’s set? How would the story be different if it occurred today? How would the existence of cell phones and the Internet change this story?

3. If Seth is of sound mind and not unduly influenced by anyone, why do you think he attempts to right his family’s wrongs in this manner—through a posthumous letter and a holographic will— knowing that it will provoke such intense conflict? Are his actions considerate of Lettie? Are they unfair to his family? Do they put Jake in an unnecessarily difficult position? In the same situation, what would you have done?

4. Do you think the verdict—all five parts of it—was correct? Do you think Judge Atlee’s modification of the verdict was fair?

5. Do you think Judge Atlee was a good judge? In the instances where he allowed legally questionable evidence to be presented, did he make the right choices?

6. On page 92, Lucien and Jake debate the differences between the Carl Lee Hailey trial and the upcoming Hubbard trial. Jake tells Lucien, “That was all about race. This is all about money.” Lucien replies, “Everything is about race in Mississippi, Jake, don’t ever forget that.” Who do you think is right? Are they both right?

7. How does the theme of forgiveness shape this novel?

8. Public opinion can play a significant role in influencing juries and, therefore, verdicts—but public opinion isn’t necessarily shaped by objective facts. How did gossip, exaggerations, rumors, and out- right lies (both printed and spoken) shape the trial outcome?

9. What role did memory play in the legal proceedings? For Lettie? For Ancil? For the jury?

10. What did you learn about the legal process in reading this novel? Did it change your perception of lawyers or America’s judicial system?

11. Who in this novel exhibits selflessness? Who exhibits selfishness? Are there characters who exhibit both? Who is the hero of this novel?

12. How responsible are we for the actions of our ancestors?

Book clubbers! Be sure to stay in touch with John Grisham on his Facebook page. You can also learn more about his events and upcoming news on his website!

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