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Discussion Questions: The Pursuit of Pearls by Jane Thynne

Thursday, April 28th, 2016

The Pursuit of Pearls_ThynnePerfect for fans of Jacqueline Winspear, Charles Todd, Robert Harris, and Susan Elia MacNeal, here is the next thrilling historical novel featuring Clara Vine, the British actress and special agent who glides through the upper echelons of Nazi society, covertly gathering key intelligence—and placing herself in mortal peril.

Use the following questions when discussing The Pursuit of Pearls with your book club.

1.    Despite their seemingly different political inclinations, Clara visits her sister when she is upset by Grand’s suggestion of Leo’s death. Blood may be thicker than water, but do you believe, as Clara does, that it should be thicker than war?

2.    How does Clara’s status as an English spy change her relationship with Erich?

3.    Clara talks about all the things that have been rationed, such as coffee and meat, or made more difficult, such as easy travel. What do you think is the hardest thing for her to sacrifice? What would be the hardest for you?

4.    What advice would you give to Hedwig about the conflict between Jochen and her parents?

5.    Though Clara narrates the majority of the novel, we occasionally see events from Hedwig’s point of view. In what ways are the two perspectives similar? In what ways are they different?

6.    In part due to Clara’s mixed heritage many of her acquaintances ask where she would eventually like to settle down. Where do you think she should go?

7.    Conrad Adler knows that Clara is part Jewish, but she continues on with her life as always, even seeing Adler again. Do you agree with her decision, or would you have handled the situation differently?

8.    Themes of heritage pervade the book, often bringing into conflict ethnic, religious, cultural, and national identities. What do you think it is that makes you who you are?

9.    What do you think Conrad Adler means when he says that Clara has a look of “fire behind ice”?

10.  In a world of spies, secrets, and war, it is difficult to know who to trust, and Clara chooses her confidants carefully. Do you agree with all of her choices? Who in your life would you choose to trust if you were in Clara’s circumstances?

11.  Do you think Conrad Adler is a good man, or do you think he is as bad as the political party for which he works? Would you trust him? Why or why not?

12.  There are quite a few revelations as the final pieces of the book fall into place. What surprised you the most?

Discussion Questions: My Name is Lucy Barton

Monday, February 29th, 2016

My Name is Lucy Barton_StroutA new book by Pulitzer Prize winner Elizabeth Strout is cause for celebration. Her bestselling novels, including Olive Kitteridge and The Burgess Boys, have illuminated our most tender relationships. Now, in My Name Is Lucy Barton, this extraordinary writer shows how a simple hospital visit becomes a portal to the most tender relationship of all—the one between mother and daughter.

  1. Lucy’s husband asked her mother to visit her in the hospital, and paid for her trip. Do you think that was a gesture of love on his part?
  2. What role does the gossip Lucy and her mother share play in the book?
  3. Do you think Lucy blames her mother for the more painful parts of her childhood? Could her mother have done better?
  4. WWII and the Nazis are themes that profoundly affect Lucy’s father (and hence her whole family), Lucy’s marriage to her first husband, and even her dreams. Discuss.
  5. Lucy expresses great love for her doctor. How would you describe that love?
  6. Lucy’s friend Jeremy told her she needed to be “ruthless as a writer.” Did she take his advice? How?
  7. Why did Lucy keep returning again and again to see the marble statue at the Metropolitan Museum of Art?
  8. How has the poverty of Lucy’s childhood shaped her life and her work?
  9. What does living in New York City mean for Lucy? Do you think she feels at home in New York?
  10. What did Sarah Payne mean, when she said to Lucy: “We only have one story”?

Discussion Questions: Girl at War by Sara Novic

Friday, February 26th, 2016

Girl at War_TP_NovicFor readers of The Tiger’s Wife and All the Light We Cannot See comes Girl at War by Sara Novic, a powerful debut novel about a girl’s coming of age—and how her sense of family, friendship, love, and belonging is profoundly shaped by war.

This is a book about war through the eyes of a young person, both a child and a young adult. What are the benefits and drawbacks of a having a child/ young adult narrator? Imagine Ana in her thirties. How might she tell the story differently now?
Ana’s father tells her the story of “Stribor’s Forest” after a particularly difficult day for the family. Do you see echoes of the story’s moral throughout the rest of the book?
In what other ways does storytelling or narrative become important for Ana?
The end of Part 1 features an aside about language—Ana says she grew up thinking all languages were ciphers, translatable by swapping out alphabets. Why is this important to the story? Why do you think the Nović chose to include it during a moment of extreme violence?
The novel’s four sections often end at times of high tension. Why do you think Nović chose to write the story in a nonlinear fashion?
While at the UN, Ana makes the statement that “there is no such thing as a child soldier in Croatia.” Given her experiences, what do you think she means?
A lot of minor characters help Ana to safety along the way—who was your favorite and why?
When Ana returns to Croatia, she and Luka wonder how long it takes to forget a war. What do you think?
How might the story have been more or less effective had Ana and Luka become romantically involved?
How would you say Ana changed as a person throughout the course of the novel?
This story has in turns been classified as “historical fiction,” a “war story” and a “coming-of-age story”—which of these resonates most with you?
The end of the novel is fairly open-ended. What do you think happens after the final scene?

    Discussion Questions: When Breath Becomes Air

    Monday, February 8th, 2016

    When Breath Becomes Air_KalanithiFor readers of Atul Gawande, Andrew Solomon, and Anne Lamott, a profoundly moving, exquisitely observed memoir by a young neurosurgeon faced with a terminal cancer diagnosis who attempts to answer the question What makes a life worth living?

    Use these discussion questions to guide your book club discussion of When Breath Becomes Air…

    1. How did you come away feeling, after reading this book? Upset? Inspired? Anxious? Less afraid?

    2. What did you think of Paul’s exploration of the relationship between science and faith? As Paul wrote, “Science may provide the most useful way to organize empirical, reproducible data, but its power to do so is predicated on its inability to grasp the most central aspects of human life: hope, fear, love, hate, beauty, envy, honor, weakness, striving, suffering, virtue. Between these core passions and scientific theory, there will always be a gap. No system of thought can contain the fullness of human experience.” Do you agree?

    3. How do you think the years Paul spent, tending to patients and training to be a neurosurgeon, affected the outlook he had on his own illness? When Paul wrote that the question he asked himself was not “why me,” but “why not me,” how did that strike you? Could you relate to it?

    4. Paul had a strong background in the humanities, and read widely throughout his life. Only after getting a Master’s in English Literature did he decide that medicine was the right path for him. Do you think this made him a better doctor? A different kind of doctor? If so, how? How has reading influenced your life?

    5. What did you think of Paul and Lucy’s decision to have a child, in the face of his illness? When Lucy asked him if he worried that having a child would make his death more painful, and Paul responded, “Wouldn’t it be great if it did,” how did that strike you? Do you agree that life should not be about avoiding suffering, but about creating meaning?

    6. Were there passages or sentences that struck you as particularly profound or moving?

    7. Given that Paul died before the book was finished, what are some of the questions you would have wanted to ask him if he were still here today?

    8. Paul was determined to face death with integrity, and through his book, demystify it for people. Do you think he succeeded?

    9. In Lucy’s epilogue, she writes that “what happened to Paul was tragic, but he was not a tragedy.” Did you come away feeling the same way?

    10. Lucy also writes that, in some ways, Paul’s illness brought them closer – that she FELL feel even more deeply in love with the “beautiful , focused man” he became in the last year of his life. Did you find yourself seeing how that could happen?

    11. How did this book impact your thoughts about medical care? The patient-physician relationship? End of life care?

    12. Is this a book you will continue thinking about, now that you are done? Do you find it having an impact on the way you go about your days?

    Discussion Questions: Too Close to Home by Susan Lewis

    Monday, December 14th, 2015

    Too Close to Home_LewisFor readers of Jodi Picoult, Heather Gudenkauf, and Elizabeth Flock comes a riveting and timely novel that delves into a modern family’s harrowing encounter with the complex world of cyberbullying.

    Questions and Topics for Discussion

    1. Have you, or has someone you know, ever experienced bullying?

    2. In what ways do you think the Internet and social media change the bullying culture in schools?

    3. What can be done about this issue, in schools or at home?
    Do schools have a responsibility to get involved? To what

    4. What do you think prompts bullying behavior in teenagers? Can it be stopped?

    5. Discuss Jack and Jenna’s relationship. What changed
    between them after the move to Wales? Could they have handled their affairs differently? How would you have handled it?

    6. What sort of consequences do you think bullies should face for their actions?

    7. Why do you think the bullies chose to target Paige specifically?

    8. Discuss the mother–daughter relationship at the heart of this novel. What did you think of Jenna’s parenting? How could she have handled Paige’s situation differently?

    9. Discuss Paige’s relationship with Jack. How does the fact that he’s her stepfather influence the family dynamic?

    10. Paige has a very complicated home life: her mother’s marriage is in jeopardy, they recently moved to Wales, finances are tight, etc. What other aspects of her home life may have heightened the stress Paige was under?

    Discussion Questions: All of Us and Everything

    Sunday, November 29th, 2015

    All of Us and Everything_AsherFor fans of Eleanor Brown’s The Weird Sisters and Liane Moriarty’s The Husband’s Secret comes a smart, wry, and poignant novel about reconciliation between fathers and daughters, between spouses; the deep ties between sisters; and the kind of forgiveness that can change a person’s life in unexpected and extraordinary ways.

    1. Augusta says, “Storms are one way to define people. . . . There are those who love storms, those who fear them, and those who love them because they fear them.” Based on how this plays out in the narrative, how would you define the Rockwells and why? Which category do you fall into?

    2. Discuss the characters’ relationships with control. In what ways are the Rockwells always striving for it in their personal lives, their romantic relationships, and their approaches to motherhood? Are these relationships healthy? Do the characters eventually relinquish control and if so, what is it that frees them?

    3. Augusta has attempted to spearhead numerous movements, none of which have gotten off the ground. Why do you think she has such a need to organize these campaigns, and why do they all inevitably fail? What’s the significance of her causes—-Mothers United for Peace, Raise Your Voices, The Movement’s Movement, The Self–Actualization Cause, The Individuality Movement, and The Personal Honesty Movement, to name a few—in relation to the story? Is there a commonality between them that’s essential to understanding her?

    4. Instead of writing fiction, Ru decides to study an actual matriarchal society in an attempt to “borrow authenticity.” Do you agree with her statement that all nonfiction is “borrowed authenticity”? How does this differ from her approach to writing novels, or does it? What do you think Ru is trying to get at in her writing?

    5. Ru wonders if sisterhood and motherhood are “[ways] to find versions of yourself locked away in others.” Do you think that’s an accurate way to describe these relationships? Do you see any of your own sibling and/or parental relationships reflected in the story?

    6. The girls have each adopted a different method of coping with their father’s absence. Liv looks for comfort in other people’s families and relationships rather than her own, Ru holds onto the belief that her father really is a spy and makes it her mission to find him, and Esme has outright accused Augusta of sleeping with multiple men to satisfy her own selfish desire to become a mother. How do these assumptions shape each of them, their sense of self and responsibility? How does the reality of their father’s existence affect the very essence of who they are? Do they each seem to be on a path to healing, acceptance, and self–actualization after all?

    7. What is Liv’s impetus for cherry–picking husbands from the engagement pages? Do you think she’s capable of real love? Did you empathize with her by the end and, if so, what lessons do you think she needed to learn in order to become a sympathetic character?

    8. What were the different qualities Ru appreciated about Cliff and Teddy? Which qualities made Teddy the right man for Ru and, conversely, Cliff the wrong one?

    9. Esme admits to feeling the other life she could have lived with Darwin Webber, even while she was married to Doug, so strongly that it was like she was in touch with an alternate universe. Is it fair of her to blame her father for the current state of her life? Is it human nature to feel a connection to the path not taken? If you were in Esme’s shoes, would you have wanted to reconnect with Darwin and the life that could have been, or do you think that kind of wishful thinking is a recipe for disappointment?

    10. Nick was involved in his daughters’ lives from a removed distance, but he certainly changed the course of events for them. Would you say he’s more parental or manipulative in that way? Could you pardon him, knowing his reasons for intervening when he felt he must, or do you think he should have stayed out of things? How is his relationship and involvement different with each of the sisters and why?

    11. Do you think Nick is a good father? Is Augusta a good mother?

    12. Did Augusta do the right thing by keeping so much about Nick from their daughters? Was there anything she could or should have done differently?

    13. The sisters argue over whether they’re ultimately likeable versus loveable versus unlikeable. Would you agree with their conclusion that they’re unlikeable? Why or why not? Why do you think they see themselves that way?

    14. The concept of truth is a muddled one for the Rockwells, who’ve lied to themselves and one another for various reasons. Why is it so hard for them to be honest? Is one lie more profound, even more destructive, than the others?

    15. Why is it so important that Atty collect the complete set of Nancy Drew books by the end of the novel? What is the thematic significance of Nancy Drew in this story?

    16. The weather is such a visceral piece of the narrative, almost like a character in and of itself. How did the storms affect the way you experienced the story? What did the Rockwells lose as a result of the hurricane and, ultimately, what did they gain? Why does it sometimes take a perfect storm to finally reconcile the past?

    Discussion Questions: The Virgin’s Spy

    Wednesday, November 18th, 2015

    Virgin's Spy_AndersenPerfect for fans of Philippa Gregory and Alison Weir, The Virgin’s Spy is award-winning author Laura Andersen’s second novel about the next generation of Tudor royals—a mesmerizing historical novel filled with rich period detail, vividly drawn characters, and all the glamour and seduction of the fabled Tudor court.

    1.  Discuss Elizabeth’s marriage to King Philip. Can you envision any scenario in which their marriage might have survived? Or were their religious differences and political responsibilities insurmountable?

    2.  What do you think motivated Elizabeth’s revelation about her suspicions regarding Lucette’s true parentage? Was her choice political or personal? How might she have handled the situation differently? Discuss the long–term impact of her decision on Lucette and the Courtenay family.

    3.  Which character surprised you the most? Why?

    4.  In what ways are Anne Isabella and Elizabeth similar? In what ways are they different? Compare and contrast the two, both as women and as leaders.

    5.  Discuss the relationship between Minuette and Elizabeth. In what ways has it evolved, and in what ways has it remained the same?

    6.  Elizabeth plays many roles—-that of wife, friend, mother, and queen most notably. Discuss these different facets of her personality. Do you see a difference in her behavior in each of these contexts, or does the monarch necessarily overshadow the other roles?

    7.  At one point, Lucette asks, “Should not love between spouses be absolute? How could one ever love a second person as much as the first?” Do you agree with this sentiment? Is it possible to feel romantic love for more than one person in a lifetime?

    8.  Renaud tells Lucette: “You are so afraid of not being wanted, you will not put it to the test, and thus create the very distance you fear.” Do you agree with his assessment of Lucette? Can you think of anyone else in the book to whom this sentiment applies?

    9.  Discuss Julien’s motives for becoming an English spy, taking into account the events of 1572. Do you find his reasons compelling?

    10.  Before leaving England, Philip says to Elizabeth, “I indulged myself in a dream these twenty years because I loved you and because I hoped persuasion would be of greater influence than force.” What do you think his dream was? How could Elizabeth have handled the situation with Spain differently? At this point, do you think there was anything she could have done to dissuade Philip from carrying out his plan?

    11.  Compare and contrast Nicolas and Julien. In what ways are they similar? In what ways are they different? Did you sympathize with Nicolas at all by the end?

    12.  If you read The Boleyn King Trilogy, compare and contrast the relationships between Kit, Anabel, Pippa, and Lucette to those between the previous generation: Elizabeth, William, Dominic, and Minuette.

    13.  What did you think of the revelation at the end of the book? Any predictions for the sequel?

    Discussion Questions: At the Water’s Edge

    Monday, November 16th, 2015

    At the Water's Edge_GruenIn this thrilling new novel from the author of Water for Elephants, Sara Gruen again demonstrates her talent for creating spellbinding period pieces.At the Water’s Edge is a gripping and poignant love story about a privileged young woman’s awakening as she experiences the devastation of World War II in a tiny village in the Scottish Highlands.

    Use these discussion questions to help guide your book club’s discussion of the book.

    1.       The novel takes place during World War II. Is the war setting a distraction or does it contribute to the success of the novel? Would changing the time frame change the meaning of the novel? How did the austerity of the times affect Maddie, who was used to a life of luxury? Have you ever discussed what things were like during the Great Depression and World War II with family members who lived through it? What stories did they share with you?

    2.       “What I learned over the past year was that monsters abound, usually hiding in plain sight.” Monsters come in all different forms in At the Water’s Edge. What are some of the monsters in the novel? How are they different from what you might expect?

    3.       Throughout At the Water’s Edge, Maddie transforms from a woman who is spoiled, naïve, and helpless to one who is brave and capable. What and who are the major influences that led her to change? What are the biggest lessons Maddie learns throughout the course of the novel?

    4.       Discuss the novel’s ambiguity concerning the supernatural. How does Sara Gruen blend mystical elements into the narrative’s realism? Did Ellis and Hank find the Loch Ness Monster after all?

    5.       Do you think Maddie and Ellis were ever truly in love? What did you think of Ellis? Did you sympathize with him? Did Ellis change as a character in the course of the novel or did the changes all take place within Maddie?

    6.       How did you feel about Hank? Did he evolve during the course of the novel or did his character remain the same?

    7.       The idea for At the Water’s Edge came to Sara Gruen during a visit she took to Scotland. She became fascinated with the ruins of old castles, the wild beauty of nature, and Scottish history and folklore. Discuss the role that the landscape and atmosphere of Scotland plays in the novel.

    8.       Discuss the evolution of Maddie and Angus’s relationship. What were some of Angus’s qualities that Maddie grew to most admire? At what point do you think she realized she loved him?

    9.       At the Water’s Edge explores humanity at its most base, as well as its most noble. Can you give some examples of both from the story? In the end, what kind of statement do you think Gruen makes about human nature?

    10.       Before she goes to Scotland, Maddie only has Ellis and Hank as friends. How do the female friendships she develops in Scotland shape her in new ways?

    Discussion Questions: Vanessa and Her Sister

    Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

    Vanessa and her Sister_ParmarWhat if Virginia Woolf’s sister had kept a diary? For fans of The Paris Wife and Loving Frank comes a spellbinding new story of the inseparable bond between Virginia and her sister, the gifted painter Vanessa Bell, and the real-life betrayal that threatened to destroy their family. Hailed by The New York Times Book Review as “an uncanny success” and based on meticulous research, this stunning novel illuminates a little-known episode in the celebrated sisters’ glittering bohemian youth among the legendary Bloomsbury Group.

    1.      When the novel opens, the Stephen siblings’ father has died and they have moved from their childhood home in Kensington to bohemian Bloomsbury. Why do you think Vanessa chose to uproot her siblings and move to such a radically different part of town? What sort of change was she trying to bring about for her family?

    2.      Vanessa tells us that her family values words and books over painting and visual arts. How do you think growing up in such a family affected Vanessa’s view of herself as an artist? Would you rather be a writer or a painter?

    3.      Vanessa always protected and supported Virginia, and excused much of her difficult and unsocial behavior. Do you think Vanessa’s tolerance gave Virginia permission to behave in the way that she did?

    4.      What is your opinion of Virginia and Vanessa’s relationship? Before Vanessa’s betrayal, did you find them to be legitimate friends, or do you feel something was missing between them even before Vanessa married Clive? How did Vanessa’s view of her sister change after she married?

    5.      Vanessa turned down several proposals from Clive, but decided to accept him after Thoby died. Do you feel that if Thoby had lived, Vanessa might have chosen a different path? Or that Virginia might not have behaved as she did? Do you think Vanessa and Clive were well suited to each other?

    6.      Virginia felt contempt for Clive and thought him an unsuitable husband for her sister. Why did she seek to “find a place” in Vanessa’s marriage? What do you think Virginia hoped to achieve?

    7.      We often think of the early twentieth century as being a time of almost Edwardian restraint, yet the Bloomsbury Group was open about both homosexual and heterosexual love. Do you think they were utterly unique? Do you believe such openness was actually more common at the time than we traditionally believe?

    8.      Members of the Bloomsbury Group not only challenged the norms of the time but also challenged one another during their numerous discussions about art, writing, philosophy, economics, and even love. Vanessa at times felt she was out of her depth, and marveled at Virginia’s brilliance. Do you agree with her assessment of herself? How difficult do you feel it would have been to be a part of such a talented and intelligent circle?

    9.      At one point Vanessa reflects, “If Virginia were not my sister, we would be a pedestrian cliché. Instead, we are a bohemian nightmare.” How do you feel the ideals of the Bloomsbury Group influenced Vanessa’s reaction to not only Clive’s affair with Virginia but also his choice to resume physical relations with Mrs. Raven Hill? If you had been in her shoes, do you believe you would have responded differently?

    10.   The story opens with a letter from Virginia to Vanessa stating, “What happened cannot break us. It is impossible. Someday you will love me and forgive me. Someday we will begin again.” How did this letter color your reading of the rest of the novel? Did you expect Vanessa to forgive Virginia at any point? Do you think it is fair to say that Vanessa still loved her sister, despite the fact that she ultimately decided she could not forgive her? Do you agree with Vanessa’s decision?

    11.   Vanessa and Her Sister is told largely through excerpts from Vanessa’s diary and her letters, with snippets of correspondence between her family and friends. What did you think of this narrative style? Was there any one person whose perspective you wished to see more often? How objective did you feel Vanessa’s portrayal of the story was?

    12.   Of the two sisters, Virginia is undoubtedly the more famous. Were you surprised by anything you learned about her in this novel? Did it challenge any previous ideas you had about her?

    13.   At the end of the novel, the author gives a brief description of what became of each member of the Bloomsbury Group. Was there anything in there you found unexpected? Disappointing? Particularly satisfying?

    Discussion Questions: The Scent of Secrets by Jane Thynne

    Monday, 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?

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