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Discussion Questions: China Dolls by Lisa See

Friday, March 13th, 2015

China Dolls

San Francisco, 1938: A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from different backgrounds, meet by chance at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspiscion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Use the discussion questions below to guide your book club conversation.

1. The novel opens with the below quotation:


Only three things cannot be long hidden:
the sun,
the moon,
and the truth.

What does this quotation mean in the context of China Dolls? Lisa’s novel is filled with secrets—some hidden and not revealed until late in the novel. What were the most important ones? Why were they hidden? Did you agree with how and when they were revealed?

2. “In just these few minutes I’d learned two things about myself: I would never lower myself by faking an accent like my dad did (or Charlie Chan did in the movies), nor would I work naked as a hoochie-coochie dancer. All right, so I had pride. But what price would I have to pay for it?” (p. 11). This is something Grace realized about herself when she just started out as a performer. How did her outlook evolve throughout the novel?

3. Grace’s father brutally abused her when she was a young girl. Although Lisa never excused his behavior, how did she gradually reveal to the reader some of the factors that made him the man he was? Did you ever accept him for who he was? In what ways did the abuse Grace suffer at the hands of her father shape her subsequent relationships with men?

4. How did your perception of Ruby shift throughout the story? Did the hardship and discrimination she experienced affect the rest of her actions, whether commendable or not? How did Ruby’s ambition differ from that of Grace’s?

5. Ruby could have had any man she wanted—and she often did. Is it fair to be critical of the way Ruby tried to hide her early relationship with Joe from Grace? Why did she choose Joe, especially in light of Grace’s crush on him? Was this betrayal ultimately helpful to Grace in some respects?

6. How did you react to the way Ruby hid her Japanese ancestry as World War II began? How did you feel about her relationship with her parents? Did you think Ruby’s parents were Japanese spies? Could you tell one way or another? Did it matter to you whether they were verifiably innocent or guilty?

7. Helen’s narratives were filled with traditional Chinese sayings. Which are the most important in the novel and why? What aspects of Helen’s life made her situation fundamentally different from that of the other girls? When Helen’s past was revealed, were you surprised? How did it affect her approach to friendship?

8. Helen’s and Grace’s fathers share many similarities in how they look at their daughters and women. In what ways do their personal backgrounds make the two men different from each other?

9. What important elements did Eddie bring to the novel? Would you have married Eddie if you had been in Helen’s situation?

10. Ruby says to Grace, “You want an American life. I want an American life. Even Helen wants an American life” and then thinks to herself “And all of us, in our own ways, were doing the best we could to erase who we were” (p. 301). What do you think an “American life” meant for each woman, and why did they have to erase themselves to achieve it? Who were you rooting for most in the novel—Grace, Helen, or Ruby? And why?

11. Did you think Grace’s relationship with Joe was significantly different after the war? If so, how? In what ways had Grace changed? Joe? In reality, could they have changed as much as they did in the novel?

12. How was Helen’s betrayal of Ruby different from her betrayal of Grace? Which betrayal was worse? Why? Would the final confrontation scene have been different if it had been entirely narrated by Grace? Or by Helen?

13. While there are big betrayals in the novel, there were also moments of great resiliency and hope as the girls helped each other. In what ways did Grace, Helen, and Ruby support one another?

14. Perhaps more than in any of her other novels, Lisa has written in great detail about clothes and fashion. Why do you think she did that and what was she trying to say?

15. “China doll” or “China dolls” are phrases used often in the novel. What are the most important meanings behind this phrase? Which are positive? Which are negative? At the end of China Dolls,Tommy’s daughter criticized Grace’s career as one that promoted racial stereotypes. Was that criticism fair? Why or why not?

Q&A: Lisa See, author of China Dolls

Friday, March 6th, 2015

China DollsSan Francisco, 1938: A world’s fair is preparing to open on Treasure Island, a war is brewing overseas, and the city is alive with possibilities. Grace, Helen, and Ruby, three young women from different backgrounds, meet by chance at the glamorous Forbidden City nightclub. Grace Lee, an American-born Chinese girl, has fled the Midwest with nothing but heartache, talent, and a pair of dancing shoes. Helen Fong lives with her extended family Chinatown, where her traditional parents insist that she guard her reputation like a piece of jade. The stunning Ruby Tom challenges the boundaries of convention at every turn with her defiant attitude and no-holds-barred ambition.

The girls become fast friends, relying on one another through unexpected challenges and shifting fortunes. When their dark secrets are exposed and the invisible thread of fate binds them even tighter, they find the strength and resilience to reach for their dreams. But after the Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, paranoia and suspiscion threaten to destroy their lives, and a shocking act of betrayal changes everything.

Read the insightful Q&A below between Lisa and the real life China Dolls!

I first met Jodi Long, an actress who made her Broadway debut at age seven in Nowhere to Go But Up and now stars in Sullivan and Son on television, when she came to one of my book events. She gave me a copy of Long Story Short, a documentary she produced about her parents, who were nightclub performers. Larry Long was from Australia. He danced as a solo artist, teamed up with Paul Wing, and later married Trudie Kim (née Kimiye Tsunemitsu), who had been interned at the Minidoka War Relocation Center. After they married, they put together their own song, dance, and comedy act. On May 7, 1950, they were among the first Asian-American performers to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. In 2011, I did two interviews with Jodi and Trudie together. I offer these excerpts so you can get a sense of how I do research and then how the truth and details of real-life stories inspire me.

Lisa See: How old were you when the war started?

Trudie Kim: I was nineteen. I celebrated my twenty-first birthday in New York City when I got out of the internment camp in Idaho.

LS: When you were in the camp, you wrote letters to people, asking them to sponsor you to leave. How did you know who to write to?

TK: I knew that several people were writing for newspapers in New York; they were nightlife people. Not Walter Winchell, but others. So I
wrote, and I said I was in camp and I didn’t want to stay there. I said, “Why am I here? I’m an American citizen.” I couldn’t get out of camp unless someone agreed to give me a job.

LS: Your parents let you go?

TK: We were in camp! We lived in barracks. The whole family lived in one room. They evacuated us from the West Coast. A lot of people lost property, farms, and so forth, but we didn’t own anything like that. They sent us there, and when we got out of the train, we put our hands up like this and we couldn’t even see our hands because that’s how dusty it was. When I got there, I said, “How in the hell do I get out of this joint?” I spent all of my days going up to the placement office, which wasn’t even settled at that point, in a spot two or three miles away. I’d walk up there, and I’d say, “How the hell do I get out? Give me the papers.” It took me weeks. Lee Mortimer finally answered. He was a writer for the New York Daily Mirror. He was the nightlife editor, or whatever. He used to take out Asian girls. He used to take out Noel Toy. She was a bubble dancer. I think he took out Florence Ong. She was Korean, and she was sort of an opera singer.

LS: What did you think when you first got off the train in New York?

TK: I didn’t have a soul to help me. I got off at Penn Station. I had read about the Barbizon Hotel for Women, which was on Lexington and Sixty-third. I stayed there for a couple of weeks. I started to look for a job. I went to Macy’s, Lord & Taylor, Best & Co., Arnold Constable, and Gimbel’s. No one would hire me as a saleswoman.

LS: Do you think that was because of the war?

TK: Probably. But they probably weren’t hiring any Asian people, anyway, at that time. No one said that. That was just my intuition. No one offered me a job—not even in the storeroom. I wasn’t fussy. I just wanted a job.

Jodi Long: I think what’s really interesting is that she couldn’t get a job in any of those places, but the one place that gave her a job was the American Bible Society as a file clerk and a typist.

LS: [To Trudie] You must have been a bit of a dreamer.

TK: I thought, Gee, I might be a singer. When I first came to New York, someone said, “Let’s go to the Hurricane Nightclub, where Duke Ellington is playing with Johnny Hodges.” Someone said, “Go up and sing.” I sang a few bars. Duke Ellington didn’t really listen to me, but it was an entrée.

LS: How did you get your job at the China Doll?

TK: Lee Mortimer took me out. That’s how I met everyone. He used to call me at the American Bible Society and say in a very low voice, “You want to go out tonight?” I used to go to nightclubs with him. When the China Doll opened, he had some pull in trying to get Asian people into the show. He is the one who suggested that I go down there to audition. “Go down there and audition. Maybe you’ll get a job!” I wanted to try out, but I was afraid that I might lose my job at the ABS, even though the pay was only seventeen dollars a week. Let me put it this way. The girls at the China Doll were making seventy-five dollars a week, so I talked to my boss at the ABS. “They have an open call for chorus girls. They make much more money than I do here. Would I be able to go down there and not lose this job here?” She said, “Go and try for it. Don’t worry about your job here. If you get it, fine. If you don’t get it, come back. I’ll hold the job for you.”

LS: So this was your first experience dancing?

TK: You go in, and he looks at you. The next day, they show you—do this and do that—which is absolutely nothing much. I guess he wanted to see how I looked onstage—presence, walk, and so on. It wasn’t too long, otherwise my boss wouldn’t have let me go. And then he decided. “Okay. I’m going”—like in the movie The Black Swan—“I’m going to pick you, pick you, pick you. The rest of you, thank you very much for coming.” When I went back to the dressing room, I said, “I got the job!” The other girls said, “You did?” I shouldn’t have bragged, but I was so excited. I wasn’t that clumsy, I guess.

JL: This was so much about survival. Performers like my mom and dad grew up in the Depression era. They saw Hollywood movies and somehow they got in their minds that they could do that, whether they had any formal training or not. Like my mother—​she didn’t have any formal training. Some of them did, like my father, who was taught how to tap by a Caucasian woman in Australia. The person who really took him under his wing was an African American man who was putting on music-hall shows in Australia. How interesting that that guy got from Africa to America, learned tapping, and then went to Australia and gave it to a little Chinese boy. I think it was really, “Oh, I can do this, and who cares what anybody thinks? I can make more money doing this.”

TK: Back home I used to work for fifty cents an hour in a grocery store. The big thing for me was, God! I can make seventy-five dollars!

JL: Tell Lisa the story about the guy, who, when you girls sat with him at the China Doll, he always took the money out of his socks.

TK: He was a Chinese guy. He worked on a big boat, going back and forth, with lots of passengers. I don’t know what his function was. I know he wasn’t just a sailor. I don’t think he was a cook, either. Maybe a steward. He used to come in regularly when he came back to shore. He would have all the girls sit at his table. When I say “girls,” there were a lot of us—six or so. We’d order food and drinks. That’s what we did after the first show. We used to sit and eat!

LS: What was your favorite thing to eat?

TK: I just wanted food. We didn’t go home and cook. When the tab came, he used to get cash from his shoe, from the heel, and pay for it. There were no charge cards back then. One time, he came in and said, “Oh, you girls want some shoes?” About four or five of us said, “Sure.” We went to his hotel. I thought, Oh my God. What’s going to happen? Let’s go get them and get out as fast as we can. He gave us shoes and some of us went home. I don’t know if anything happened with other girls. We used to stick together because we were all so young.

LS: It sounds like there was a lot of camaraderie with the other girls. Were there rivalries and jealousies and competition too?

TK: I don’t think so, not rivalry. The only thing I really didn’t care for and I really didn’t like was that three-quarters of them were Chinese, and they spoke Chinese most of the time in the dressing room. I didn’t like it.

LS: Did you feel they were doing that to leave you and the others out? Did you feel they were gossiping?

TK: I felt sometimes they may have been talking about us. I just didn’t like it. They probably weren’t talking about us, but who knows? When you’re young, you always think someone’s talking about you. Still, that was one thing I detested.

LS: All this time, were you writing to your parents? What did they think?

TK: I didn’t write to my parents. They didn’t read English, and I couldn’t write Japanese. Who used the telephone in those days? But they might have thought, Ah! What is she doing? It’s not traditional. The only worry they probably had was, Is she getting along?

JL: My grandparents couldn’t provide my mother with anything. They were in an internment camp, after all.

TK: I don’t know how my mother felt. She used to iron shirts in the Laundromat and she would work really hard, and she would send me ten dollars every once in a while.

LS: When you were working at the China Doll, what did you do when the night was done? Would you just go home or did you go out with everyone?

JL: Tell her about how you used to go to the drugstore after the show.

TK: Hanson’s Drugstore was across the street, and everybody hung out there. It was on Seventh Avenue, right across Fifty-first Street. [To Jodi] Your father always used to be there.

LS: Was Larry considered a headliner, a big star?

TK: Yes, he was a headliner at the China Doll.

LS: So he saw you and thought you were cute?

TK: I was the only one who listened to him! He hung around. I used to take a cab home to Seventy-fifth Street, but he’d make me walk all the way up to Seventy-fifth Street. I’d say, “Cryin’ out loud. I could have taken a cab.”

JL: Because he couldn’t afford a cab? Right?

TK: Right. Exactly. Sometimes we used to stop at Reuben’s, which was a pretty big restaurant; a lot of people used to go after the shows. Lena Horne was there one time, in the next booth. That was on Fifty-seventh Street.

LS: So Larry comes to the club; he’s got an act; he starts following you around . . .

TK: No. He was in an act.

JL: We should back up a little bit and give the backstory to that. Paul Wing was in a dance act with his partner, Dorothy Toy. [Wing & Toy were considered the Chinese Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.] They were married at one point. Dorothy, even though her last name was Toy, was Japanese. According to the stories that I’ve heard, and I think it was Dad who told me, Wing & Toy had a Hollywood contract and another performer, who will remain nameless, ratted her out and told the people that they were hiring “a Jap.” The other performer was Chinese, and she got the job instead. That’s when Paul and Dorothy split up their act, because now that her cover was blown, she went on the road with her sister. Paul was on his own in San Francisco, and that’s when my father got up to the Forbidden City and they formed the Wing Brothers. Paul went from being Wing & Toy to the Wing Brothers. Even though all the pictures make them look like they were like the Nicholas Brothers—with all this tap dancing—my father was a tap dancer, but Paul didn’t really tap.

LS: He was more like a ballroom dancer.

JL: Yeah. Exactly. They did lots of jokes and patter and that stuff. They brought that to the China Doll, and that’s when my mother met my father. The Wing Brothers broke up somewhere in there, and my dad stayed in New York. I think because he gambled all his money away and couldn’t get it back!

TK: That’s true, because after work, not every night, but on certain nights they would play pai gai.

JL: They would stay after the show—not just at China Doll but also at the Forbidden City—to play cards or mahjong or whatever.

LS: [To Trudie] What was it like working with your husband?

TK: Putting the act together wasn’t just overnight.

JL: My father was a real stickler. He’d come see me at my show. “Did you know somebody was moving during your punch line? Tell them to stop moving.” He probably did that with my mom too.

TK: He’d say, “You moved!” “I moved?” I did move. [To Jodi] You went through that too? I didn’t dance, so I was faking when we did the tap dancing.

LS: I’ve seen the clip of you on The Ed Sullivan Show. You looked like you were dancing to me.

JL: If you really watch her feet [on The Ed Sullivan Show], she’s really good from here up. If you really watch my father’s feet, he’s tap dancing. My mother’s just stepping. It’s really funny to go back and watch it. She’s just doing the moves. She’s a good faker.

TK: I’m a good faker!

JL: Yes, you are!

LS: [To Jodi] What’s your earliest memory of being in a nightclub?

JL: I remember the waitresses. They used to take care of me when my parents were onstage. I remember I would sit sometimes in the audience, if it wasn’t too late. I specifically remember that you had to go through the kitchen to get to the dressing rooms. We’d be going through the kitchen with all those cleaver-wielding chefs, and that was scary. They’re all barking Chinese and wanting to pinch your check, and you’re like, “Ugh!” You’re running through the kitchen and getting backstage. The backstage area is still so clear in my mind. There were two staircases that went up. One to the women’s dressing room and one to the men’s dressing room. I also remember a stripper at the Forbidden City. She used to babysit me backstage. I used to play with paper dolls, and I liked to cut out the dresses myself. One day, she cut all the paper doll dresses out of the book. She thought she was doing me a favor. I was so upset. And I remember as a child thinking, “Why is she doing that?” Thinking about it later, she was giving my dolls clothes, even though she didn’t wear them. That’s pretty strange. She was putting clothes on my paper dolls!

TK: You used to run around backstage with Michael.

LS: Another boy?

JL: Yes. Larry Ching’s son. [Larry Ching was billed as the Chinese Frank Sinatra.] He was my first crush. A few years ago, we did a movie together up in San Francisco. It’s six in the morning, I’m in the makeup chair, some guy’s supposed to be playing my brother-in-law and I’m hearing him talk about how his father was a -performer at the Forbidden City. I’m like, What? I look at him, and I say, “Your father worked at the Forbidden City? So did mine.” He goes, “Oh, yeah. What was your dad’s name?” I say, “Larry Long.” I say, “What’s your dad’s name?” “Larry Ching.” “And what’s your name again.” He goes, “Michael.” I go, “Wait a second. You’re not the Michael I went to the San Francisco Zoo with?” He goes, “Oh my God! You’re Jodi.” It was unbelievable. It was just too weird. We’re still friends.

LS: One thing that struck me was how people were billed: The Chinese Fred Astaire; the Chinese Sophie Tucker. What was the reason or thinking behind that? Why would they get those labels?

TK: They called Toyet Mar the Chinese Sophie Tucker because she was heavy, I think.

LS: And she had a big voice.

TK: Yeah. Kind of. With the Wing Brothers, when your father and Paul Wing danced together, the newspapers used to call them the Chinese Nicholas Brothers.

JL: I always thought they did that for the Western audience to go, “Oh, I know what that is!” You look at certain actors, and they’ll look like Errol Flynn or whomever, and there’s a context already when you see them on the screen. You recognize what that stands for. It contextualizes the performer. I think in the performing arts that’s somewhat useful. But it’s also why it’s been hard for Asian Americans when you get to that other level of breaking into television or film. There’s not quite been a context for it. “Now I know what that is and I’m not completely shocked.” Seeing my parents on The Ed Sullivan Show, what’s always so amazing to me is that they start out doing the chinky-Chinaman kind of thing, but it contextualizes them and it makes their act almost acceptable for the audience, because that’s the way the audience is looking at it. When they take off their Chinese robes and they’re just Western-style performers, it’s like, “Oh!”
LS: How did that come about—being on The Ed Sullivan Show?

TK: I have no idea. I didn’t handle any of that stuff. All I know is we were going to perform there.

JL: Ed Sullivan had scouts who would go to all the nightclubs and all the vaudeville places, and that’s how they would see you and then they would want to book you.

LS: I would have been excited and terrified too.

TK: I really can’t remember if I was excited or not. I was trying to be very careful of what I wore. I had something I had already made. Everything matched. I even had green hose.

JL: Mom made all her own costumes. But it was always about the career and putting it out there. It was the only way you were going to get ahead. That’s the performer’s dilemma. There will always be that Broadway show, that television show, that movie part that will put you over.

LS: But maybe people really did think there was a chance. “I’m at the top of what I’m doing as queen of the nightclub acts.”

JL: You’re right. There is that glass ceiling. Completely. And it is still here for us now. There’s always that vague hope that one day that one thing is going to happen that’s going to change something. Sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn’t. Maybe it does for half a second, and then you’re back to square one. That was really what I wanted to say about these performers and how they were perceived. The times were different. In those days, you could make a lot more money in entertainment than the average Joe putting wires into a transistor, slinging hash, or typing.

Jodi Long brought her memories of the Forbidden City, her parents, and all the amazing performers she grew up knowing to her narration of the audio version of China Dolls. On June 13, 2014, Trudie Kim Long passed away at the age of ninety-one, exactly two weeks before the publication of China Dolls. In the memorial card Jodi sent to her friends, she used the following lines from an Eskimo legend:

Perhaps they are not stars in the sky. But rather openings where our loved ones shine down to let us know they are happy.

The Quick: Discussion Questions

Friday, March 6th, 2015

The QuickLauren Owen’s thrilling first novel introduces an utterly beguiling world. London, 1893: James Norbury is a shy would-be poet, newly down from Oxford and confounded by the sinister, labyrinthine city at his doorstep. Taking up lodging with a dissolute young aristocrat, he is introduced to the drawing rooms of high society and finds love in an unexpected quarter. On the cusp of achieving a happiness long denied to him, he vanishes without a trace. In Yorkshire, his sister Charlotte – only in her twenties but already resigned to life as a rural spinster – sets out to find her brother. Her search for answers leads her to one of the country’s pre-eminent and mysterious institutions: The Aegolius Club, whose members include the richest, most ambitious men in England. Trying to save James – and herself – from the Club’s designs, Charlotte uncovers a secret world at the city’s margins populated by unforgettable characters: a female rope walker turned vigilante, a street urchin with a deadly secret, and the chilling “Dr. Knife.” As emotionally involving as it is suspenseful, The Quick will establish its young author as one of contemporary fiction’s most dazzling talents.

Use the discussion questions below to guide your conversation with your book club.
 

1. What genre (or genres) would you say THE QUICK falls into? How does it embrace or subvert the conventions of those genres?

2. What literary influences do you see in THE QUICK?

3. Emily Richter figures into many of the book’s most pivotal early scenes. How much do you think she knows or doesn’t know about James and Christopher’s relationship, and about Eustace’s change? Why do you think she tells James to “be careful”?

4. Discuss the figure of the owl throughout the book.

5. Characters agree to the Exchange for different reasons. Why reasons do you think Adeline’s fiancé, John had? Are there any reasons that would tempt you to join the Aegolius Club?

6. Why do you think Mrs. Price turns children? How does their group compare to other family units in the book?

7. Why do the Club members refer to the living as the “Quick”?

8. How does Mould change over the course of the book? Do you think he remains a man of science to the end? Why might Edmund have delayed so long in giving Mould what he wanted?

9. Charlotte’s quiet life is altered drastically by the book’s events. In what ways does it change for the better? When in the book do you think she is happiest?

10. Had you heard of a priest hole before reading THE QUICK? Why do you think Owen chose to begin and end the book there?

11. The ending of THE QUICK seems to beg for a sequel. What do you think happened to James? What directions could you imagine a sequel going in? Whose stories might it follow? When and where might it take place?

Discussion Questions: Glitter and Glue by Kelly Corrigan

Monday, March 2nd, 2015

Glitter and Glue When Kelly Corrigan traveled to Australia in 1992, the only job she could find was as a nanny. Instead of just carpools and babysitting, she walked into a household still grieving the recent loss of the children’s mother. To her surprise, she found herself deferring to the wisdom of her own mother, who once said that her father “may be the glitter, but I’m the glue” a pattern that would become more pronounced years later. This is a story about growing up and stepping up, but most of all, it’s about the great adventure of motherhood.

 
 

Take a look at the discussion questions below to guide your book club conversation.

1. As a young woman Kelly thinks, “Things happens when you leave the house,” and books a round-the-world trip to Australia. Do you think that these types of adventures are necessary to gain life experience? Does Kelly’s maxim change by the end of the book?

2. Milly and Martin respond differently to Kelly’s entry into their lives. Why do you think this is? When (if ever) do things begin to change with Milly?

3. Like the characters in the book My Ántonia, Kelly wants to be someone important to Evan. What does she mean by that? Based on what Kelly reveals about Evan at the end of her story, do you think she was successful? Why or why not?

4. During her time in Australia, Kelly realizes that it’s only when she’s away from her mother that she can appreciate her forthright, often unyielding nature and the role she played in Kelly’s childhood. Have you come to see anything more clearly about your own mother over time?

5. Kelly often hears her mother’s voice in her head, offering advice and reciting her maxims as she tries to care for Milly and Martin. Has something similar ever happened to you? Does your mother have rules to live by?

6. What is the significance of Walker the American? How does he influence Kelly’s understanding of life experience?

7. Do you think daughters’ relationships with their fathers are inherently different from their relationships with their -mothers? Does Kelly’s relationship with Greenie support this? What does the fact that Mary kept Kelly’s shoplifting a secret from her father suggest?

8. John Tanner is working hard and quietly to raise his kids when Kelly arrives. How does he change over the course of the book? How would you have tried to help him adjust to his new circumstances?

9. When Kelly works at her mom’s real estate agency, she is shocked to hear co-workers describe her mother as “the life of the office” (page 87). Why is this an important moment for Kelly? How is your perception of your own mother different from her friends’ and colleagues’ perceptions?

10. On page 146, Kelly explains the phenomenon called “Reader Response.” Did you find yourself interpreting Glitter and Glue through the lens of your own personal experiences? Is it possible to read any book without automatically subconsciously comparing it to your own life?

11. Kelly remembers many vivid moments from her stay with the Tanners, including her trip to the beach and Martin’s tantrum walking home from school. Why do you think Kelly still thinks about the Tanners? Why do you think she chose to write this story after her cancer scare?

12. Of all the ideas juxtaposed in these pages—mothers and fathers, adventure and life experience, stepping out and stepping up—which resonate the most with you? Why?

13. On page 47, we learn where the title Glitter and Glue comes from. What do you think of having one parent as the glitter and another as the glue? Is this what it was like in your own family? Was this always the case?

14. Kelly often says that, for her, Glitter and Glue is fundamentally about acceptance, which she calls “the Mt. Everest of emotions . . . hard to get there, hard to stay there.” She defines acceptance as the moment you “actually stop trying to change someone, not because you’ve given up but because you finally realize that their way of being in the world is the right way for them.” Have you experienced this level of acceptance, either as the person accepted or the person accepting?

15. Kelly also talks about the difference between like and love, something she learned through her relationship with her mom. She says she “used to think love was just a whole lot of like but now she sees that you can like people you might never be able to love and you can love people deeply that you don’t particularly like.” Do you have any relationships that fall into either of these categories?

A King’s Ransom Discussion Questions

Thursday, February 26th, 2015
Kings Ransom Cover

Kings Ransom Cover

A vivid and heart-wrenching story of the last event-filled years in the life of Richard, Coeur de Lion. Taken captive by the Holy Roman Emperor while en route home – in violation of the papal decree protecting all crusaders – he was to spend fifteen months imprisoned, much of it in the notorious fortress at Trefils, from which few men ever left alive, while Eleanor of Aquitaine moved heaven and earth to raise the exorbitant ransom. For the five years remaining to him, betrayals, intrigues, wars, and illness were ever present. So were his infidelities, perhaps a pattern set by his father’s faithlessness to Eleanor. But the courage, compassion, and intelligence of this warrior king became the stuff of legend, and A King’s Ransom brings the man and his world fully and powerfully alive.

Take a look at the discussion questions below and discuss with your book club!


1. Richard places a good deal of importance on the notion of honor. How would you define Richard’s code of honor? Does he consistently live up to it? Do you have your own code of honor? If so, can you describe it?
2. Richard reflects on his mother’s sixteen years of imprisonment by his father, noting her fortitude in surviving it for so long. Compare Eleanor and Richard’s responses to captivity. What kind of impact did captivity and isolation have on each?
3. Eleanor is approaching seventy years old during the events of this novel. How do you think her age and experience impact her politicking?
4. As a prisoner, Richard observes that “words were his weapons now” (page 239). How does Richard’s battle style, when he is armed with words, compare to his tactics when he is armed with a sword?
5. While imprisoned by Hadmar, Richard gains a new perspective on Duke Leopold’s reasons for leaving Jerusalem after Richard disrespected the Austrian flag. Before hearing Friedrich’s arguments, Richard had never tried to see Leopold’s side. How do you think this new information influenced Richard’s subsequent actions toward Duke Leopold? In a broader sense, do you think this incident impacted Richard’s diplomatic practices? For example, did it make him more open-minded, or more inclined to empathize with his enemies? Can you think of any examples of Richard demonstrating an ability to appreciate multiple sides of an argument?
6. Discuss Pope Celestine’s leadership from Rome. How did his allegiances impact Richard’s fate? What motivates his actions? What is your view on the Catholic Church’s role in the political landscape at this time? Should the Pope have done more to protect the holy crusaders?
7. Eleanor and Hawisa discuss marriage as being “a man’s game” (page 310). Discuss the power dynamics in the royal marriages we observe in the novel.
8. Richard considers himself a devoutly religious man, as demonstrated by his efforts in the crusades. Discuss the nature of Richard’s faith and his relationship with God. Does he always act in accordance with the teachings of the Church?
9. Discuss the rivalry between Richard and John. What do you think of John’s actions during Richard’s long absence? Do you think Eleanor was too willing to believe the worst of John, as he says when she confronts him about his treachery? Did you believe his claims of innocence, as Eleanor did?
10. Compare Richard’s leadership style with that of the other kings and dukes he encounters. In what ways is Richard more or less effective than his contemporaries?
11. Discuss Richard’s relationship with Berengaria. Were you surprised by his infidelities? Is he right to stay with her, despite knowing she will never give him a son, or does he have a responsibility to the crown to produce an heir?
12. How did you react to Richard’s final days? How do you think the author feels about Richard?
13. Richard, though he was King of England, spent very little time in that country. Do you think his actions in Normandy and France were in the best interest of his country, or was he motivated by his personal connections to that land and his hatred of Philippe II?

Discussion Questions: Remember Me Like This

Monday, February 9th, 2015

Remember Me Like This TR coverFour years have passed since Justin Campbell’s disappearance, a tragedy that rocked the small town of Southport, Texas. Did he run away? Was he kidnapped? Did he drown in the bay? As the Campbells search for answers, they struggle to hold what’s left of their family together.

Here are some discussion questions below to guide your book club,
 
 


1. Remember Me Like This is rendered from the perspectives of various characters, but never Justin’s. Why do you think Johnston decided not to include his point of view? What do the alternating perspectives do for the story?

2. The novel opens with a body floating facedown in the ship channel, then flashes back and shows the events that led up to the discovery. Who did you think was in the water at first and why? Did your feelings change throughout the book?

3. The novel opens with a body floating facedown in the ship channel, then flashes back and shows the events that led up to the discovery. Who did you think was in the water at first and why? Did your feelings change throughout the book?

4. The novel takes place during a humid summer in South Texas, and Johnston asks the reader to pay a lot of attention to the heat and weather. How does this setting relate to the themes of the book?

5. Early in the novel, the reader learns that Cecil believes love can be shown through not disclosing what you know. Do you agree with him? What role do secrets play in the book?

6. Are Eric and Laura good parents? In what ways do their actions support or undermine each other’s? What would you have done differently in their shoes?

7. Each of the Campbells seeks different kinds of shelter in the book: Eric is involved in an extramarital affair; Laura spends much of her time volunteering at Marine Lab; Griffin devotes most of his energy to skateboarding and Fiona; and Cecil retreats deeper into the grooves of his life. What do these shelters offer the characters? What do the shelters reveal about them? Do the shelters hold up?

8. Most of the novel takes place in Southport, a small coastal town with a tightly knit community. How does that sense of closeness and isolation play into the story? How does the realization that, geographically, Justin was never that far away affect the Campbells?

9. Which character do you identify with the most and why?

10. In your own family, do you think you’re more like Eric or more like Laura?

11. Had Cecil’s plan worked, what do you think he would have done with Buford? Did you believe the story he tells Eric about taking Buford into Mexico? Did he ever intend to include Eric in the plan? Why does he decide against including him?

12. Do you think Buford’s father is being honest with Cecil about just wanting one last day on the water with his family? Why or why not?

13. The novel ends with Eric imagining what might have happened to Buford. What do you think happened to Buford? Do you think Laura had anything to do with it?

14. Where do you imagine each of the Campbells in a year? In five years? In ten?


Discussion Questions: Behind Closed Doors

Thursday, January 22nd, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Q&A with Weight of Blood author, Laura McHugh

Tuesday, January 20th, 2015

Weight of Blood A Conversation with Laura McHugh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

TP: What are you working on next?

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

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

Friday, January 16th, 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SL: Police procedure.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Feature Essay: Elizabeth Berg, author of TAPESTRY OF FORTUNES, on Visiting a Psychic

Thursday, April 3rd, 2014

Berg_Tapestry of Fortunes Elizabeth Berg is the author of many bestselling novels as well as two works of nonfiction. Tapestry of Fortunes is a New York Times bestseller and follows four women as they venture into their pasts in order to shape their futures, fates, and fortunes. Today, she shares a special story with us about a time when she went to visit a psychic!

THE “HOLD ON A SECOND” PSYCHIC BY ELIZABETH BERG

When I wrote Tapestry of Fortunes, I knew I wanted to include aspects of divination. It was for whimsical as well as more serious reasons. I wouldn’t say I believe entirely in the prognostic statements of Runes or Tarot cards or people who call themselves psychics, but there can be times when readings are eerily dead on. One of the first times I went to a psychic, I had a lot of fun with a pretty eccentric character. But there was something about the experience that let me know there was more to the business of inquiring of the oracle than I had thought. Here’s what happened.

Claire Brightwater is the proprietor of Earth Dancer Gallery. This is a shop situated over a shoe store and next to a weight loss clinic. You can buy all kinds of Native American things there: kachina dolls, beautiful stones, feathers, books and tapes, blankets and jewelry and medicine wheels. Also, you can take advantage of Claire’s psychic abilities. You know she has them because of the sign in her window. PSYCHIC, it says.

So I make an appointment for a reading. And when I arrive, I’m a little late and apologetic and out of breath. “Sorry,” I say. “Sorry.” She holds up her bracelet-laden arm. “No problem.” She pulls a chair up next to her desk. “Here,” she says. “Sit down. Center yourself.” She has long, flaming-red hair. She is wearing a purple shawl and a colorful, long skirt and many rings. She is a wonder to behold, one of those women who look so good overweight that you want to be overweight, too. I put my jacket and purse on the floor and she says, “No, you have to get centered,” and puts my purse under me and my jacket behind me. “There,” she says. “Now, I’ll just pay some bills here while you hold some crystals.” She puts a pink one in my right hand and a purple one in my left. While she makes out checks, I hold the crystals tight. I see another homemade sign against one of the counters. NO PLASTIC. CHECKS OKAY. BARTERING OKAY. In a little while, she looks up. “Okay?” I nod. She checks the pink crystal. “This is for love,” she says. “Your heart is full of love.” She nods, agreeing with herself. “Yes. Very beautiful.” Then she takes the purple crystal. “This is for stress,” she says. “This is cold. You got a lot of stress.” Now I nod, thinking, Well, I’m alive on the earth. Why wouldn’t I have stress? Claire’s advice to me about stress is this: “You need to go back to the earth. You need to lie down on it, first on your back, arms and legs spread out. Then lie on your front, and listen to the pulse of the earth.” This sounds like fine advice to me. I used to do it all the time when I was a kid. And I had much less stress then, come to think of it.

She tells me she sees a lot of oscillating around me. “You’re going back and forth, back and forth inside, aren’t you?” We stare intently at each other. The phone rings. “Excuse me,” she says. Then, into the phone, “Hello, Earth Dancer Gallery.” I’m thinking, wait a minute. What kind of reading is this? But she takes care of the call and is back to me. She tells me to pull an I Ching card, and I get “Retreat.” That sounds good, I tell her. Yes. I definitely need a vacation. Claire suddenly jerks her head up, stares into space. “No . . . note . . .NOTORIETY!” she says. She looks at me. “This word, it just came to me! Are you trying to be famous or something?”

“Well,” I say, “I guess we’d all like to be famous. But I don’t know if notoriety is the word I’d pick.”

The UPS man comes. Claire tells me to hold on, she’ll be right back. She goes over to the counter to pay the man, has a little chat with him. Sixty dollars I paid for this, I’m thinking. Jeez.

Next we do animal cards. Claire is an all-around kind of psychic. Turns out I’m an owl. “You need to go into the dark for the light,” Claire tells me. “That’s what this card is saying.” Well, I’m all for op- posites. You know, the blond beauty, held in the arms of the strong, handsome man, says, “Oh, I hate you, I hate you, I hate you!” just before she kisses him to death. There’s something to opposites.

The phone rings again. Claire tells the caller, “He’s not here. Can I take a message?” She writes something down, hangs up. “It’s time for you to wear a feather in your hair, yes?” she asks me. She picks one out for me. Two dollars.

Now, I know how this is sounding. But the notion of wearing a feather is actually quite appealing. As is lying on the earth. As is a retreat. I’m starting to feel kind of happy. I ask Claire what music is playing in the background. It’s very, very soothing. I want it. It’s “Lazaris Remembers Lemuria,” she tells me. Just so happens I can buy one from her.

“Have you been feeling tired?” Claire asks.

“Yes!” I say. And I really have. Not just I don’t want to do the dishes tired. I’ve been deep tired.

She nods. “All the women around here are tired,” she says. “It’s because of our connection to the earth. The earth is having a very hard time giving birth to spring this year, and we all feel it.”

A customer comes in, a woman just looking. “I’m doing a reading,” Claire says, “but just let me know if you need any help.” A few minutes later, there’s another phone call, someone wanting to know about the upcoming pipe ceremony. Claire tells them all about it.

“Your work, you need to pay attention to what comes from the heart.” She looks at me, shakes her head. “You will have great success.”

Another customer, a teenage boy wearing a T-shirt featuring crystals, looking for bumper stickers. No bumper stickers. But Claire sells him some little rocks.

We finish up and I realize I am feeling calmer and more centered than I have in a long time. Some of what Claire said felt silly. And some of it felt scary-true. Whatever has happened, I feel better than I ever have after any therapy session. Plus I got a feather and a tape and permission to lie down on the earth.

I guess what I believe is that there is much to the unconscious that we can learn from and be guided by. Is using some tool for fortune telling one of them? Maybe you should find out for yourself. If you’re not enlightened, you’ll at least be entertained. That’s my prediction.

Stay up to date with Elizabeth Berg on Facebook! Tapestry of Fortunes hits bookshelves in paperback on April 8th.

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