Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke keep us guessing with their new psychological thriller, The Two Lila Bennetts…author Q & A included.

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My Review:

Lila Bennett’s life is not run of the mill.  She is a young, upwardly mobile criminal defense lawyer, has had the challenging experience of defending the guilty on more than one occasion, and has stepped on some toes along the way to achieve her success.  Questions regarding her moral and ethical decisions plague her psyche when it comes to her job and her past personal life choices, and to add to her confusion, conflicting emotions when it comes to her best friend’s husband has lead her to make some recent choices that could jeopardize her own marriage.

Lila’s life could go in two different directions…and in The Two Lila Bennetts, and in Sliding Doors fashion, they do!  In one case, Lila leaves her office at night, gets captured and held hostage by a masked assailant in an undisclosed location, while being forced to repent for her bad choices.  In another case she is being followed and emotionally tortured with hints and clues about her checkered past as they slowly become public.

Authors Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke take us on an emotional and thrilling ride, following through with Lila’s parallel lives; we are faced with unexpected twists and turns every step of the way as the anticipation builds.  Lila must re-evaluate her choices and figure out who is out to get her before it is too late…and even if she does, can she return to her life as it once was?

For an edge of your seat escape you don’t want to put down, grab a copy of The Two Lila Bennetts!

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Q & A with Liz and Lisa

Q:  You have said that writing Girls’ Night Out Together practically ended your partnership and The Two Lila Bennetts brought you back together.  Can you explain?

The edit of GNO was very challenging and we found ourselves at an impasse. For so many years we had been on cruise control, not really discussing the particulars of how we do things. And that worked until we were pushed to the limit with that edit. (We rewrote a large portion of the book FOUR times!)

But ultimately, hitting rock bottom was the best thing that could have happened. It gave us an opportunity to start fresh and understand each other and our work processes better. Lila was a joy to write and edit, and it felt like a fresh start.

Q:  I am curious about your process…how did you split up the writing?  Did one of you write Lila captured and the other write Lila free?

A:  One of the lessons we learned from Girls’ Night Out was that we both need to be fully invested in every narrative and/or timeline. So because of that, we would alternate which one of us would begin a free or captured chapter. Then we would pass the chapter back and forth, editing until we were both happy.

Q:  I love how there were hints of a double life when Lila free had unexplained soreness and dejavu.  Did you add those references in the edit stage or right from the beginning?

A:  They were there from the beginning! We thought it was important for Lila to subconsciously be aware of both lives.

Q:  Who came up with the “Sliding Door” concept?  (I never saw the movie but it is now on my list!)

A:  Liz’s fourteen-year-old daughter! We were creatively depleted after the GNO edit and she tossed out taking the Sliding Doors concept (we’d forced her to watch the movie!), and creating a suspense novel. That’s why we dedicated the book to her.

Q:  Without giving anything away, did you stick with a plan for each of your characters or did things change during the writing process?  

A:  We changed the kidnapper in edits. Both our agent and editor thought it was too obvious, and they were right!

Q:  Being a lawyer that defends guilty people is defiantly a challenge and can wear on you morally.  How did you come up with the idea for your title character?

A:  We wanted Lila to have a career that had a lot of moral gray area to give her room to make questionable choices. She’s at a point in her life where she’s questioning many things, including her choice of career.

Q:  Even though Lila wronged people in her life, she was still likable and I rooted for her until the end.  How do you create a balance of good and evil but keep your heroine intact?

A:  It’s really tough! The most important thing is to create interesting protagonists and to show the reader why they are the way they are. With Lila, she had made many bad choices, but that didn’t mean she was a terrible person, and it also gave room for growth in her arc.

Q:  If this book were to become a movie, who would you want to play Lila, Ethan, Sam and Carrie? 

A:  For Lila–Krysten Ritter Carrie-Kate Hudson Ethan-Mark Ruffalo and Jay Hernandez for Sam

Q:  What books do you have on your nightstand and what do you recommend?

A:  Liz is reading The Library Book by Susan Orlean and Lisa just finished Ask Again, Yes. We have so many books on our TBR!  Some include: This is Not How It Ends by Rochelle Weinstein, Love at First Like by Hannah Orenstein and Breathe In, Cash Out by Madeline Henry

Q:  Can you tell me a little about your next book?

A:  We’re switching things up a bit next summer with a dark love story! It’s called How To Save a Life, and it’s about a man named Dom that must figure out how to save the love of his life when she re-enters his life after a ten-year absence. Think Russian Doll meets One Day in December.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Authors

Liz Fenton and Lisa Steinke have co-authored six books:

THE TWO LILA BENNETTS, about a woman whose life is split into two. Literally. (Out July 23rd)

GIRLS’ NIGHT OUT, about three estranged friends who go to Mexico and one of them disappears. (Lake Union, July 24th, 2018)

THE GOOD WIDOW, about a wife who learns that nothing is as it seems: not her marriage, her husband…or his death is out now. (Lake Union.)

THE YEAR WE TURNED FORTY, about three best friends who get the chance to re-live the year that dramatically changed the course of their lives, is out now. (Atria Books.)

THE STATUS OF ALL THINGS, about a woman who discovers she can literally rewrite her fate on Facebook, is out now. (Atria Books.)

YOUR PERFECT LIFE, about two childhood best friends who wake up the morning after their 20th high school reunion to discover they’ve switched bodies is out now. (Atria Books.) (less)

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Exploring Complicated Relationships and the Impact of Performance Art in The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose

My Review:

So much to love in this fictional novel centered around interesting characters and the real Marina Abramovic and her Artist is Present Performance Art exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2010 in NYC.  Just as Abramovic explores the human longing for connection in her art, Heather Rose’s characters grow and change as a result of their observation and contemplation at the performance artist’s exhibit.

The Museum of Modern Love explores complicated relationships and the impact of performance art.  Arky is a composer and at this time he is a lost man.  His wife, Lydia is ill and she has requested he not see her.  He is struggling with his music and is drawn to an exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art featuring Marina Abramovic, a performance artist.  He attends everyday, watching her sit and face other visitors as they look deep inside themselves.  Arky meets Jane, an art teacher from Georgia who is mourning the loss of her husband and has abandoned her plans to visit art galleries in NYC to attend this intriguing MOMA exhibit.  Captivated by Abramovic and the unique and powerful artistic expression, the two of them work through their thoughts on the importance and impact of art and contemplate their own personal loss and relationships.  This wonderful book is worthy of research and discussion – so much to think about when it comes to love and commitment, and a lot to learn about the courageous and one of a kind artist, Marina Abramovic… all available online, including a very funny spoof video with Fred Armisen and Cate Blanchett, Waiting For the Artist.

Additional Thoughts:

My book group had the wonderful opportunity to FaceTime with Australian author of The Museum of Modern Love, Heather Rose – from Tasmania to Westport, CT.  With a fourteen hour difference, we decided to do a practice run and lucky we did.  At 5AM I awakened by a FaceTime call, but the rehearsal was meant for 7pm my time, not her time! Heather and I tried again her next day, later the same day for me…and ultimately we got it right for the book group meeting!

Heather told us she had been working on writing a book for many years.  At the same time, and totally unrelated, she had come across something about performance artist Marina Abramovic and had been researching her, even though there was hardly any information available.  Abramovic had put her life on the line for her art and self expression – something that intrigued Heather.  Then, while on vacation, Heather was sitting at a restaurant alone at the hotel with an empty seat facing her.  She had this idea that different people would come and sit across from her and it sparked an idea for her book – people who had passed would come to visit the character… so she went up to her room and wrote all night.

Shortly after, she heard that Marina Abramovic was going to be at The Museum of Modern Art in NYC in an exhibit called The Artist Is Present, where she would be sitting with an empty chair facing her and inviting people to sit across from her.  Heather Rose went to NY and spent several weeks there.  She sat in the chair across from Marina 4 times, talked with people waiting in line, and each experience was profound and different.  With approval from Abramovic and her team, Heather rewrote her book with Marina Abramovic as the center piece of her fiction novel.

Heather Rose seemed to have some special connection with Marina Abramovic and heightened intuition and foresight which brought her to writing this novel.  Her personal life greatly influenced the characters and their journeys as well – she has a chronic illness as mirrored in the character of Arky’s wife, and she and her husband divorced during the writing of this story.  Our group was excited to hear she writes childrens books with a friend under the pen name, Angelica Banks, the Tuesday McGillyCuddy series, and knowing she enjoys spending time in NYC, we all hope to see her in person someday!

I loved this book and highly recommend it!  If you enjoy art you may want to check out The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis and On Color by David Scott Kastan.

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Jennifer Blankfein facetiming with Heather Rose

Goodreads Summary

Author Heather Rose

About the Author:

Heather Rose is the author of five novels with a further two due for publication in 2016. Heather writes for both adults and children. Her adult novels include The River Wife & The Butterfly Man.

Heather writes the acclaimed Tuesday McGillycuddy series for children under the pen name Angelica Banks with award-winning author Danielle Wood.

Heather’s first novel White Heart was published in 1999. It was followed by The Butterfly Man in 2005 – a story based on the disappearance of Lord Lucan in 1974. It was longlisted for the IMPAC Awards in Ireland, shortlisted for the Nita B Kibble Award and won the 2006 Davitt Award for the Crime Fiction Novel of the Year written by an Australian woman.

In 2007 Heather received the Eleanor Dark Fellowship and an Arts Tasmania Wilderness Residency for her novel The River Wife. The River Wife was published in 2009.

In 2010 Heather began collaborating with Danielle Wood and the Tuesday McGillycuddy series for primary age readers was born.

The series begins with Finding Serendipity published in Australia, Germany and the USA in 2013/14. The sequel A Week Without Tuesday has been published internationally in 2014/ 2015 and the third book in the series – Blueberry Pancakes Forever – will be published in 2016/17.

In 2016 Heather’s next novel – The Museum of Modern Love – will be published by Allen & Unwin. It is based on the life and work of the artist Marina Abramovic.

Heather’s work has appeared in journals and anthologies including: Dirty Words – A Literary Dictionary of Sex Terms – edited by Ellen Sussman (Bloomsbury, USA), Some Girls Do – edited by Jacinta Tynan (Allen & Unwin) and Mosaic – edited by Ros Bradley (ABC Books). Her stories and reviews been published in various editions of Island magazine.

Being A Well Adjusted and Confident Teenager Is Not The Norm in Normal People by Sally Rooney

Normal People by Sally Rooney

My Review:

Don’t miss Sally Rooney’s newest novel, Normal People.  This engaging page-turner is about two teenagers from Ireland but it is for everyone!  Connell is a smart, popular athlete with a working class single mother, and Marianne is an intelligent, oddball loner who lives in a mansion with her disfunction family, enduring their physical and mental abuse.  They two are intellectually well matched classmates yet socioeconomically incompatible and they steer clear of each other in high school.  Connell’s mom is the cleaning lady for Marianne’s family and when Connell picks his mom up from work the teenagers’ paths cross. Their attraction is powerful, they enjoy conversation, and they secretly spend time together, agreeing to keep it under wraps.

Their relationship is complicated in public. The kids at school would never understand or accept their being a couple, but when they are alone together they are drawn to each other.   “Most people go through their whole lives, Marianne thought, without ever really feeling that close with anyone.” Their feelings grow and the companionship brings them both some sense of normalcy and happiness, until Connell makes a bad decision that hurts her feelings and changes the course of their relationship.  This crucial choice pushes Marianne away, and so begins the rough road of ups and downs these complex Irish teenagers’ experience in this coming of age love story, Normal People.

Marianne struggles with self worth in high school, but in college she appears more confident and popular with many friends.  Connell ends up at the same school but is more reclusive, his security of high school having disappeared.   He truly loves her and tells her he will never let anything bad happen to her.  Their magnetism is mutual and undeniable, and even though they are not a traditional couple, they end up feeling understood and normal when they are alone together.  Unfortunately due to misunderstandings, they have fall outs over and over. They are both on the constant search for self worth and love, and they each have other relationships, but Marianne’s are not always healthy.

“There’s always been something inside her that men have wanted to dominate, and their desire for domination can look so much like attraction, even love.  In school the boys had tried to break her with cruelty and disregard, and in college men had tried to do it with sex and popularity, all with the same aim of subjugating some force in her personality.  It depressed her to think people were so predictable.  Whether she was respected or despised, it didn’t make much difference in the end.  Would every stage of her life continue to reveal itself as the same thing, again and again, the same remorseless contest for dominance?”

Connell and Marianne did not feel normal in their own skin, struggling with intellectual superiority along with insecurities and feelings of unworthiness.  They knew each other best, yet communication was often misinterpreted between them and their reactions based on what they thought was going on impacted the choices they both made along the way.

This coming of age love story deals with social and economic status, depression and dominance…very real and often sad and frustrating.  There were things I hoped Connell and Marianne would have said to each other and I desperately wanted a different ending, but even though they suffered the consequences of poor communication, we are left with the hope that these two young people will ultimately find themselves happy and together.  Sally Rooney’s writing is easy to read, direct and gives a clear picture of the complexities of  a teenage, fluctuating relationship over a four year period.  I loved Normal People and highly recommend it!

Goodreads Summary

Sally Rooney

About the Author:

Sally Rooney was born in 1991 and lives in Dublin, where she graduated from Trinity College. Her work has appeared in Granta, The Dublin Review, The White Review, The Stinging Fly, and the Winter Pages anthology.

Rooney completed her debut novel, Conversations with Friends, whilst still studying for her master’s degree in American literature.  She wrote 100,000 words of the book in three months.

Rooney’s second novel, Normal People, was published in September 2018 and it was long listed for the Man Booker Prize of that year.  On 27 November 2018 it won “Irish Novel of the Year” at the Irish Book Awards. Normal People won the Costa Book Award in January 2019 and has been long listed for the 2019 Dylan Thomas Prize. In March 2019, Normal People was long listed for the Women’s Prize for Fiction.

4 Benefits of Reading… This Is What I Know.

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Reading helps us to examine our world in new ways.  It provides us with opportunities to become more educated on an infinite number of topics and allows us to look at issues ways we may never have before.  Reading gives us insight into relationships and helps us understand people, teaches us empathy, and presents opportunities to ask questions.

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Here are 4 benefits of reading, and 30 book suggestions for you to enjoy!

1.  LEARN ABOUT INTERESTING TOPICS

Exploring places around the world and going back in time through reading gives us access to infinite knowledge.

Different Aspects of World War II

At The Wolf's Table

Women were chosen to be food tasters for Hitler in At The Wolf’s Table by Rosella Postorino.

Challenges of Assimilation

A Place for Us

A Place For Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza explores a Muslim Indian American family and their religion and traditions.

Performance Art at MOMA

The Museum of Modern Love

The Museum of Modern Love by Heather Rose is a fiction story centered around Marina Abramović and her performance art exhibit in 2010.

South Africa and Apartheid

Hum if You Don't Know the Words If You Want to Make God Laugh

Hum If You Don’t Know the Words and If You Want to Make God Laugh by Bianca Marais tells stories of women and family brought together through tragedies.

Rwandan Massacre

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

The Girl Who Smiled Beads by Clemantine Wamariya is a memoir about a girl who survived the genocide in Rwanda and the aftermath.

Death Row and Prison Life

The Last SuppersThe Sun Does Shine

The Last Suppers by Mandy Mikulencak and The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hinton give a dismal picture of what goes on behind bars and the strength needed to overcome.

The Korean War

PachinkoIf You Leave Me

Pachinko by Min Jin Lee and If You Leave Me by Crystal Hana Kim teach us about the lives of Korean refugees.

AIDS in the 1980s and 90s

The Great BelieversNow Everyone Will Know

The AIDS crisis devastated so many and deeply impacted families in the  The Great Believers by Rebecca Makkai and Now Everyone Will Know by Maggie Kneip.

Famous People

LittleWhite HousesSong of a Captive Bird

Little by Edward Carey is a story based on the imagined life of Madame Tussaud, Eleanor Roosevelt and her unconventional relationship is depicted in White Houses by Amy Bloom, and the life of the strong female poet, Forugh Farrokhzad is revealed in Song of a Captive Bird by Jasmin Darznik.

Strong Women That Were Wronged

Lilac GirlsRadium Girls

These are devastating stories of women in the past who were not protected by the government, like the rabbits in The Lilac Girls by Martha Hall Kelly,  and the factory workers in The Radium Girls by Kate Moore.

Grand Central Terminal History

The Masterpiece

Fictitious stories about the actual art school located above Grand Central Terminal are depicted in The Masterpiece by Fiona Davis.

2.  EXAMINE COMPLEX RELATIONSHIPS

Reading can provide different prospectives, helping us see a story from all sides.

AsymmetryThe Only Story

Loosely based on the author and Philip Roth, we read about a young girl in a relationship with an older male in Asymmetry  by Lisa Halliday. 

A look back on the memories of the narrator’s first love, there is a young male in a relationship with an older female in The Only Story by Julian Barnes.

The Sunshine SistersThe Husband Hour

Complex mother, daughter and sister relationships play out in Jane Green’s The Sunshine Sisters and Jamie Brenner’s The Husband Hour .

3. LEARN TO EMPATHIZE

People are always saying reading encourages empathy and it is really true…When you are reading you are made more aware of other people’s feelings and given the opportunity to understand people that are different.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely FineThe Extraordinary Life of Sam HellA Boy Made of BlocksWe Loe Anderson Cooper

Eleanor Oliphant by Gail HoneymanThe Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Bob Dugoni and A Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart are about those that just don’t fit in; similar to the characters in the short story collection We Love Anderson Cooper by R.L. Maizes.

4. EXPLORE THE UNKNOWN

Some books provide opportunities to ask ourselves WHAT IF? 

The CircleReady Player OneThe FarmVox

The Circle by Dave Eggers examines the power of social media.

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline shows the future of video games.

The Farm by Joanne Ramos explores surrogate farms.  

Vox by Christina Dalcher takes a dystopian look at government control.

globe and people

Learn about interesting topics.  Examine complex relationships.  Learn to empathize.  Explore the unknown.

 What are you reading today?

First Love, Memories and How We Choose to Reflect on the Past in The Only Story by Julian Barnes

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My Review:

The Only Story by Julian Barnes is an introspective retrospective on a first love and how it shaped the narrator’s life.  I loved this thought provoking love story told many years later and the internal discussion about memories.

In part one, nineteen year old Paul is home from university for the summer and with his mother’s encouragement, he joins the local country club to play tennis.  He is partnered with Susan, a married woman old enough to be his mother.  Paul and Susan spend time together and as their lives intertwine, he meets Susan’s friend Joan, and Susan gets to know Paul’s college buddies.  Paul falls in love, Susan is attracted to him, and the unlikely couple begins an affair.  When their taboo relationship becomes public, they are kicked out of the country club.  Young Paul is energized by the public disapproval, and despite her marriage, albeit loveless, the two travel together, and they live together for over a decade. There was love and romance, and everything was so good.  This is how Paul wants to remember.

In part two Paul tells us all the things he remembers but would want to forget.  They had borders living with them in the attic, Susan’s husband punched him and on another occasion he smashed her teeth in.  Susan was an alcoholic and taking antidepressants.  The realities of life are revealed and author Julian Barnes switches narration from first person, to third person as he distances himself from intense feelings of lust and love to disappointments and heartbreak.

Susan and Paul’s non traditional relationship was a beautiful love affair and at the same time marred by lies, abuse and alcohol.  Paul discusses the idea that feeling less and lower expectations can protect you from too much emotion and hurt.  His happiness is based on Susan, but her happiness has nothing to do with him.  She is devoted to drinking and he takes that as rejection.

In the end,  Paul can’t stop Susan from drinking so he leaves her, but every time she needs him, he goes to her.  He is emotionally tethered and his love for her causes him to be angry and disgusted with himself, wondering if there is something to be said for feeling less.

The Only Story is a raw look at young love, memory and bias, and how over time you can gloss over difficult times to shape your memories.  I enjoyed the author’s retelling of Paul and his falling in love with an older woman, his all in full commitment and his naiveté, her baggage with her husband, children and her addictions, and how his love blinded him.  Romantic and sad with love, forgiveness and continual heartbreak, this story is thought provoking when it comes to how we look back at our lives and remember certain things.  Beautifully written and short in length, this is well worth the read.

An interview with Julian Barnes

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Julian Patrick Barnes is a contemporary English writer of postmodernism in literature. He has been shortlisted three times for the Man Booker Prize— Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), England, England (1998), and Arthur & George (2005), and won the prize for The Sense of an Ending (2011). He has written crime fiction under the pseudonym Dan Kavanagh.

Following an education at the City of London School and Merton College, Oxford, he worked as a lexicographer for the Oxford English Dictionary. Subsequently, he worked as a literary editor and film critic. He now writes full-time. His brother, Jonathan Barnes, is a philosopher specialized in Ancient Philosophy.

He lived in London with his wife, the literary agent Pat Kavanagh, until her death on 20 October 2008.

Forging New Relationships and Redefining Home is a Difficult Road that Leads to Positive Change in This is Home by Lisa Duffy

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This is Home is a emotional story of Libby, a motherless teenage girl trying to create and define her home along with Quinn, a military wife who feels abandoned and is searching for belonging. The characters are searching for connection and the family they really want is not always an option.

Teenage Libby lives with her father, Brent, who has returned from the military to raise her.  Her mother left when she was very young, came back in time to fight and lose her battle with cancer, leaving the father and daughter to face the world without her.  Brent’s sisters live in the apartment upstairs and are on hand to take care or Libby when he is at work.

Quinn’s husband, John returned from the military with PTSD and then abruptly goes missing, so, now all alone, she moves in to the first floor apartment of Brent’s house to figure out her life.  Brent was John’s platoon leader in Iraq and he feels responsible for helping Quinn out.  Initially, Libby is not happy with the intrusion of a stranger in her house and in her life, but she and Quinn, both struggling with abandonment and redefining home, develop a friendship.

Lisa Duffy’s characters are imperfect and believable – they all are in search of something and they also offer comfort, camaraderie and support to each other, making this a book I didn’t want to end.  The author touches on PTSD, pregnancy, drugs and alcohol, and coming of age – real life problems and challenges that are relatable.  I enjoyed all the relationships that were forged, the growth each character experienced, and I was rooting for them all! I highly recommend This is Home as well as Lisa Duffy’s first book, The Salt House.

Q & A with Lisa Duffy

Do you have experience with ptsd and the military and how much research did you do for this book?

One of the reasons I wanted to write about this subject was my lack of personal experience with the military. When my oldest daughter graduated high school, a number of her classmates joined the military, some in potential combat positions, and it raised so many questions for me. What makes someone choose this as a future? How do the loved ones staying behind feel about it? What sort of sacrifices and challenge arise when someone deploys on a tour and then returns to civilian life? As a writer, this is the material I always want to explore. The things that pique my curiosity. My research started with reading a lot of memoir and fiction. Then watching a lot of documentaries on the subject. I have several friends in the military and they put me in touch with people who were willing to talk about their experience and answer any questions that came up as I wrote the book. 

Dogs can certainly bring out the best in people. Why did you decide to include Rooster as a character? 

A lot of things that come to life in a book aren’t really decisions. When I started writing the character of Libby, she had a dog. It wasn’t really a conscious decision that I made, more of a feeling that this family would be a family who owned a dog. So…Rooster Cogburn appeared. And he was immediately this big, lazy beast. Maybe because we’ve always had big, lazy labs and they’ve always been such a huge part of our family. Rooster was a lot of fun to write. I miss spending my days with him. 

None of the characters had a stable upbringing or current adult family life that felt solid yet they were all in pursuit of normalcy. What is the significance of the title This is Home? 

The title comes from a moment in the end of the first chapter when Libby is wishing they could move out of the noisy, crowded triple-decker and back to their old home—the one she’s always known. But she doesn’t bother talking about it with her father. She doesn’t ask him to move back home because she knows that his answer will be that this is home, even though it doesn’t feel like it to her. It’s the beginning of her journey to redefine home, and what it means to her. 

What have you read lately that you recommend?

I loved Sandi Ward’s Something Worth Saving, Devin Murphy’s Tiny Americans and Elise Hooper’s Learning To See. All second books that hit shelves this year from authors I met in an online debut group for The Salt House. One of the great things about this author gig is finding new favorite writers. I’m waiting eagerly for the third novels from all of these folks. 

What is on your nightstand to be read next?

I’ve been looking forward to diving into Michelle Obama’s memoir. I also have a second draft of a friend’s novel-to-be waiting on my Kindle. And a stack of novels on my bedside table that is growing and growing. I’m not doing a lot of reading right now because I’m close to finishing the first draft of my third novel, and I find that at night, I just want to sit and clear my head. But when I’m done with the draft, I’ll be ready to dig in to other stories. 

What are you working on now?

I’m working on my third novel, releasing from Atria next summer, about class, identity and betrayal colliding when a young girl is orphaned in a close-knit island community off the coast of New England. 

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Lisa Duffy is the author of This is Home and The Salt House, named by Real Simple as a Best Book of the Month upon its June release, as well as one of Bustle’s Best Debut Novels by Women in 2017, a She Reads Book Club selection and Refinery 29’s Best Beach Reads of 2017.
Lisa received her MFA in creative writing from the University of Massachusetts. Her short fiction was nominated for a Pushcart Prize and her writing can be found in numerous publications, including Writer’s Digest. She lives in the Boston area with her husband and three children.

Enjoy the Crazy, Behind the Scenes Look at Suburbia in this humorous, satirical debut novel, White Elephant by Julie Langsdorf.

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My Review:

Having grown up and currently living in a small town in suburbia, where over time, modest houses are knocked down and replaced by mansions, trees are removed so yards can have more sunlight, and neighbors have disputes over fences, branches, mailboxes and plowing, I have witnessed communities caught up in grievances surrounding property lines, barking dogs and early morning leaf blowing.  Author Julie Langsdorf creates Willard Park, a small town outside of Washington DC where amidst the community craziness we meet well meaning, imperfect characters living their lives to the best of their abilities. Those of us living in suburban areas outside of cities will relate to this slice of life, entertaining debut, White Elephant where neighborly tensions run high and add to the stress of everyday life, tired marriages and over exposed mortgages.

In this satirical debut that is a slightly exaggerated reality and consistently humorous, we are given a peak into suburbia and all the secrets.  Julie Langsdorf digs deep to uncover the real people in the neighborhood, their lack of communication and honestly with themselves and each other, their insecurities and private affairs along with their hopes and ideas of what it means to achieve the American Dream.  White Elephant is an enjoyable snapshot of Anytown, USA where crazy things happen and it’s just another day!

Q & A with Julie Langsdorf

Q:  How did you come up with the idea to write a book about neighborhood tension stemming from the presence of a big new house, nicknamed the White Elephant?

A:  I was inspired to write the book in 2005, when a series of articles in The Washington Post and other D.C. publications detailed the chaos that was going on in some of the area’s older, established communities. People were moving into these towns and tearing down the older houses and building new, often enormous houses, much to the older residents’ chagrin. Neighbors were egging one another, yelling at each other in the street, and suing each other. It was such a big, juicy mess I couldn’t resist writing about it. 

Q:  Did you grow up in suburbia and are any of the characters based on people you know?

A:  I grew up in a small town that bears some similarities to the fictional town of Willard Park. There’s a children’s library and houses that range from gracious Victorians to 1960’s split levels. The only character who is based on someone is Terrance, Ted’s twin brother, who is modeled after my own brother, Kenny—one of the sweetest people I know. 

Q:  Willard Park seemed familiar to me and I am sure to many who read White Elephant.  Do you think people living in many suburban towns experience similar disagreements?  

A:  I think it’s a widespread problem. I’ve heard from people all over the country who say it feels like their neighborhood! We all have different ideas about the American Dream; sometimes it’s hard to reconcile those concepts within a community. 

Q:  As I was reading I was thinking the characters belong in a soap opera and then again, this small town outside of DC is an example of so many upper middle class towns…from the dispute over the trees and new houses, to the intimacy issues and infidelity, pot smoking, truancy, illness, wannabe artists, small business owners, coffee shops, town festivals, and even a community theater performance of Annie Get Your Gun…it all rings true and seems like a microcosm of the country today!   So many things happen yet the story keeps moving forward smoothly as if all the craziness is just the norm.  The satirical storytelling with a window into peoples’ lives was a joy to read.  Where did you get all your ideas?   

A:  Thank you for saying that it’s a microcosm of what’s going on today! It really feels that way to me. Willard Park is dealing with the intense stratification we are all confronting these days. It’s so hard for people to see the ‘other side,’ and we are at risk of vilifying those who have a different perspective. There is a lot of craziness in this book, but I’m not sure it’s that much crazier than things that are going on in real life! I love the way community theater pulls a town together. There’s something so sweet about townspeople singing and practicing lines together just for the joy of it; it’s an interesting contrast to the divisiveness they are all feeling. My daughter was in Annie Get Your Gun when she was a child, so I picked that one. It’s such a wonderfully over-the-top show. I never really know where my ideas come from; I like to give my mind plenty of space to wander so oddball ideas can surface when they are ready to. 

Q:  You portrayed this slice of life humorously and with great insight.  There are plenty of secrets between neighbors, friends and family members and open communication is minimal.  Most of the characters do bad things but they all have their reasons and although I felt frustrated at times, I forgave them. True feelings are revealed and obstacles are faced, all the while everyone is on their solo journey, searching for their own happiness.  Things get so messy and the characters are deeply intertwined…how did you organize the web of neighborhood relationships…did you draw it out on paper first or did you just write and it grew together?

A:  Yes, communication is an enormous problem in the book—not just among those who dislike each other, but even among those who love one another. I think it’s a problem in real life as well. I hope readers will feel they understand why the characters make the choices they do even if they disagree with them, and will feel that they are all human, despite their flaws. I don’t map it out, but I did carefully track each character’s journey toward the end of the writing process to make sure everyone’s story hangs together with the characters with whom they interact. 

Q:  Was there anything in the story that didn’t make the final cut?  

A:  I cut Nina, the realtor, as a narrator. She was a fun character to write, but in the end I didn’t think her voice added enough to the story. 

Q:  How long did it take you to write White Elephant and what are you working on now?

A:  I wrote White Elephant in about three years, between 2005 and 2008. A long time ago now! When I finished it, the bottom fell out of the market, so it wasn’t the book’s time—but things have come full circle in recent years. I recently finished another suburban comedy set in a different kind of Maryland town. It, too, is told from multiple points of view, and is very topical. I can’t reveal any more about it just yet, but I will as soon as I am able to! 

Q:  What three books have you read lately that you recommend?  And what is on your nightstand to read next?

A:  I loved Daisy Jones and The Six, by Taylor Jenkins Reid, which I listened to as an audiobook; I highly, highly recommend readers experience it in that way. I also highly recommend Angie Kim’s debut novel Miracle Creek, which will be published this Tuesday. It’s a courtroom drama you do not want to miss. I’m currently reading Oksana Behave!, by Maria Kuznetsova, which is a complete delight. She has such a fresh, fun voice. Next up is Mandy Berman’s Perennials. 

I enjoyed and recommend White Elephant.  For another humorous book that gives you a behind the scenes look – this time in politics and journalism in the newsroom, check out Amanda Wakes Up by Alisyn Camerota.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Julie Langsdorf has received four fiction grants from the Maryland State Arts Council and her short stories have appeared in several literary magazines. White Elephant, her debut novel, was named a new book to watch for and an editors’ choice by The New York Times, a book not to miss by USA Today, a highly anticipated debut novel by The LA Times, a best new book by Southern Living Magazine and Real Simple, and a Library Journal best debut.

An unlikely relationship, a problem at the airport, and an interview with a famous writer…three parts, seemingly unrelated: Asymmetry by Lisa Halliday delivers more than you would expect!

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My Review:

If you haven’t picked up a copy of Asymmetry yet, do yourself a favor and buy it today!  Delve into this book to absorb what you can, then after, you may want to read the discussion questions.  Hint:  If you want to discover more…read Alice in Wonderland, read a Philip Roth book, then read Asymmetry again to make sense of it, and look up each character’s name and origin and anything else that can be googled.  You will be surprised and overwhelmed with the incredible amount of literary knowledge and evident research Halliday included in this masterpiece of a debut.

First we are observing a relationship between a young female editor and a much older, successful writer.  At times it may seem natural and then is also may feel highly inappropriate.  Next we are inside the mind of a muslim man detained at the London airport, and finally, we read an interview with a self centered, arrogant pulitzer prize winning author. Lisa Halliday’s novel, Asymmetry, is made up of three seemingly unrelated sections.  At a closer look you may find in Folly, the first section, editor Alice and writer Ezra are very similar to real life young Halliday and Philip Roth.  In Madness, section two, the author writes as if she is a Muslim man, with authenticity and knowledge of life in Iraq and a wartime mindset.  The final section is an interview with the brash prize winner where his true colors are evident and not altogether pleasant.

Without any spoilers, I must stop here!  My book group chose this novel and it was the most enlightening and interesting discussion to date!  If you would like more information about Lisa Halliday and Asymmetry, check out this author video interview.

If you have any comments or questions about anything related to Asymmetry, I would love to hear it!

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Lisa Halliday has worked as a freelance editor and translator in Milan, where she lives with her husband. Her short story ‘Stump Louie’ appeared in The Paris Review in 2005, and she received a Whiting Award for Fiction in 2017. Asymmetry is her first novel.

Thorough research and the use of music set the stage for The Wartime Sisters by Lynda Cohen Loigman

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My Review:

I loved Lynda Cohen Loigman’s debut, The Two Family House, and she has written another emotional family story, this time taking place in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Filled with detail and charm, she clearly knows how to use research to create an authentic atmosphere in her latest novel, The Wartime Sisters.  Her fully formed characters seemed like real people to me, and thanks to her skilled storytelling, and unique use of music to create scenes, I felt like I was living at the Springfield Armory during the war.

This is a story of sisters. Ruth is the older, smart one; she likes to read and do math.  Not a looker, but is capable and given responsibility in the family.  Millie is three years younger, gets away with everything, and receives all the attention because she is the pretty one.  Now adults, parents gone, Millie has a young son and her husband has gone off to war.  She cannot support herself and her boy so they go to live at the armory with her older sister Ruth and her family.   Ruth has two children and works at the armory, and her husband is an officer and has gone off to war.  Bad blood and secrets between the sisters linger while they learn to co-exist at the armory, but with the tragedy of war and loss, and the importance of family, the gift of time often heals wounds.

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Music was an important part of this book, and Lynda Cohen Loigman shares:

HOW MUSIC HELPED TO SHAPE THE WARTIME SISTERS

Early on in my research, I read a line in a book about the Springfield Armory that mentioned an opera singer who worked as a cook at the Armory cafeteria. When I read this line, I knew I wanted to create a character like that – a woman who would work behind the stove preparing food for the factory workers, but who would have another, more creative and outgoing side to her. From that one line (and a lot of subsequent research), I shaped the character of Arietta. She is the daughter of an Italian immigrant, a former vaudeville singer who performed in theatres owned by Sylvester Poli in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Unlike Arietta, Sylvester Poli was a real person – an immigrant himself, and the owner of several vaudeville theatres throughout the northeast. He started in New Haven, and built his theater empire from there.

In the story, Arietta has a big personality and an even bigger heart. She is a wonderful friend and support for Millie, and very protective of her.

I had the best time listening to 1940’s music, trying to come up with the songs I wanted to include in my story for Arietta to sing. My favorite was a song called “A Pair of Silver Wings,” originally performed by Kay Kaiser, and later sung by Dinah Shore.

One of the pivotal scenes in The Wartime Sisters takes place during a concert that was held on the Armory grounds, put on by the Victory Parade of Spotlight Bands radio show. This scene was modeled on a real concert that occurred at the Armory in September of 1943. Benny Goodman performed for a crowd of thousands on Armory Hill, and the radio show was broadcast throughout the country.

Of course, in my version, I had to move the date slightly, and also make sure that Arietta had the opportunity to perform. The last song she sings at my fictional concert is one that helped to shape my character, Lenny. It’s called “Why Don’t You Do Right,” and Peggy Lee recorded it with Benny Goodman in 1942. It has a particularly haunting and almost ominous melody, perfect for my scene. There were so many additional songs I wanted to include, but I was only able to add a few more to the story. I hope you enjoy them, and I hope you get a chance to listen to them too!

Research is a huge part of writing a novel and here Lynda shares:

THE RABBIT HOLE OF RESEARCH – BALANCING THE “HISTORICAL” WITH THE “FICTION” 

Immersing myself in research can be tremendously rewarding. But after a while, there is a fine line (at least for me) between research and procrastination. I could research forever, and never stop to develop my characters or think about my plot. In many ways, knowing when to stop is the most difficult skill to develop.

In researching The Wartime Sisters, my goal was to create an accurate picture of daily life at the Springfield Armory, from the perspective of both the residents and the workers. I spoke many times with the curator of the Armory museum to try to get all of the details right. But there were two questions that gnawed at me, for which I couldn’t find answers. At the end of the day, one of the answers mattered, and one really didn’t. And I had to force myself to let go of the question that I knew wasn’t going to further my story.

The question that mattered had to do with the Armory’s “On To Victory” dance that occurred in February of 1943. There was an article about the dance in the Armory Newsletter, full of photographs and all kinds of information about the evening. I learned how many tickets were sold, the refreshments that were served, and the name of all the musicians and entertainers who performed. There were detailed photos of various people in attendance so I could see what they were wearing. I read about the war bond raffle and the jitterbug contest. There was, however, one crucial piece of information missing: the article didn’t mention where the dance was held. The curator of the museum had no idea, and neither of us could believe that the venue wasn’t mentioned in any of the articles we found. Finally, after seeking additional help from the Springfield Museums, we found the answer through a ticket advertisement in an old edition of The Springfield Republican. The dance had been held at the Springfield Auditorium.

Knowing the location was crucial to getting the description correct in my story. I wanted to be able to picture the hall, to see where one character stood and where another stopped to rest her feet. I wanted to know what it was like to enter the venue, to walk up the auditorium steps, and to set foot inside. This was a piece of information very worth the time and energy that went into its discovery.

At another point, however, I became fixated on a historical detail that wasn’t nearly as relevant. For whatever reason, I became obsessed with learning how it was that armory residents received their mail. They didn’t have mailboxes, so where was it delivered? Was there a separate mail room? Mail slots in the doors? I never found the answer, and the curator couldn’t help me. Ultimately, I had to let go of that small detail. I knew in my heart that writing about the specific path of a letter from the post office to the postman to my character’s hands wasn’t going to move my plot along. And, to be honest, it probably wasn’t going to be interesting for readers either.

So, there you have it – two tiny mysteries, but only one solved. The mail question continued to bother me for a while, but I forced myself to stop thinking about it. Instead, I focused on my writing and the contents of that letter I had been worrying about. Ultimately, what the letter said about my character was much more important than how it got delivered.

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Writing historical fiction is not an easy task, the research alone is endless and the commitment to accuracy seems like it could be a draining process.  I admire Lynda and so many others who put in the time to write such wonderful, creative and fulfilling stories, creating opportunity to learn about a specific time in history.

Goodreads Summary

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About the Author:

Lynda Cohen Loigman grew up in Longmeadow, Massachusetts. She received a B.A. in English and American Literature from Harvard College and a law degree from Columbia Law School. Lynda practiced trusts and estates law in New York City for eight years before moving out of the city to raise her two children with her husband. She wrote The Two-Family House while she was a student of the Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. The Two-Family House was chosen by Goodreads as a best book of the month for March, 2016, and was a nominee for the Goodreads 2016 Choice Awards in Historical Fiction. Lynda’s second novel, The Wartime Sisters, was published on January 22, 2019.