Throwback Thursday: You Should Have Known by Jean Hanff Korelitz

This book was originally reviewed in 2015

Grace Reinhart Sachs has it all.  A great job,  a loving, doctor husband, and a beautiful son.  She is even about to start the public relations tour for her first book, You Should Have Known.  As a marriage therapist, Grace has walked couples through trying to put it back together and she has counseled them when things have already fallen apart.  She sees other people’s problems with great clarity.  The thesis of her book, a sort of self help guide to not choosing relationship partners poorly, is that the clues you need to really know someone are always there, but we often choose not to heed them.  We turn a blind eye to the less worthy attributes of the ones we fall in love with, when we should have known all along that he or she would do the things that disappoint us later in life.  In short, we could avoid the catastrophes of middle age by being more attuned to what our significant other was telling us from the beginning. We Should Have Known.  

Grace has a fabulous New York life—a great apartment, private school for her son, the trappings of status and education are all hers, until they aren’t.  All it takes is the very public revelation of her own husband’s secret to blow it all up.  Facing public humiliation and even ostracism, Grace has to decide how to handle her own problems with the same clarity she has always applied to her clients’.  

This novel serves as a mirror to our voyeuristic culture, which seems to take great joy in dragging even innocent people through the mud.  We are so quick to judge and so gleeful in that judgment.  Do we ever stop to consider how satisfying our desire to revel in sordidness affects others?  How it affects ourselves, come to that?  Schadenfreud diminishes those who participate in it, and Korelitz uses her characters to show this extremely well.  Anyone who has spent time on volunteer committees will see people they recognize.  You Should Have Known also explores the theme of  victim blaming.  Perhaps we blame the victim because we need to reassure ourselves that it could never happen to us.  It is true that there are often clues that the victim ignores, but it is infinitely easier to see those clues after the fact, and so much more satisfying to tsk tsk someone.  

Through the setting, Korelitz examines modern materialism as well.  How much is enough?  When Grace steps outside of her New York life, she sees, maybe for the first time, the unimportance of all the things she thought she needed to be happy.  She reevaluates her own relationship with money and actually understands how limited the choices might be for a woman in her situation who had none.  

The reader is kept in the dark about what Grace’s husband has actually done until almost the end of the novel.  This serves to keep the focus on Grace and Henry, her son, rather than on the sensational details of “the event,” and it is an effective device.  By the time the reader has the whole picture, she is completely invested in Grace’s story.  At times sad, wrenching, even a little shocking, You Should Have Known offers an entertaining read that is also thought provoking.  

Definitely Recommended.

Plotter or Pantser? Plan your Novel in November with NaNoPlanMo

NaNoWriMo is coming up!  If you, like me, tend toward the plotting side rather than the pantsing side, and the thought of writing 50,000 words in one month makes you begin to hyperventilate, fear not, dear reader, Readerly has you covered.  For the plotters among us, and the pantsers who want to be them, Readerly will be sending out weekly planning tips beginning on November 1. We are jumping on the NaNoPlanMo bandwagon, and we are all in.  

Here’s the schedule in case you want to make sure you don’t miss a thing:

11/1  Are you clear about WHY you are writing this book?

11/8  Do you know what your message is? Every book has one…

11/15 Do you have a firm grasp on your main character? Even if you are a plotter, you can’t have a plot without one…

11/22 The Cause: Effect Trajectory and why it matters

11/29 Change over time, as in there needs to be some or no one will read your book, not even your mother.

The Secret History by Donna Tartt

Fall is a time for Apple everything!  This month enjoy a dark and slightly disturbing Academic thriller with a steaming hunk of Apple Up-Side-Down Ginger Cake and a cup of tea.

There isn’t a lot left to say about this book. It was first published in 1992, and I have had it in my TBR pile for a while now.  Well, what with Fall in the air (only 86 degrees here in Central Texas on the first day of Fall, ya’ll, be sure and break out your sweaters!) I decided to move it to the top of my pile and I am glad I did.  This is one of those novels that stays with you for a long time after you finish reading it.  The best comparison I can come up with right now is to Lolita.  You know the train wreck is coming, you know the characters are terrible people, yet you can’t look away. Even though it is over 600 pages, you will keep reading.  Even though you find out the “bad thing” on the first page, you will keep reading. Even though none of the characters has much in the way of redeeming qualities, you will keep reading.

In case you want to discuss the book with someone while you eat cake, here are some questions. 

  1. Which of the characters do you think was most responsible for what happened?
  2. Why do you think Richard was so desperate to join the Greek Program?
  3. What do you think Julian’s role was?
  4. What do you think happened that Richard didn’t tell us?
  5. How sympathetic was Bunny’s family?  Why or why not?
  6. Which character was your favorite?  Why?

Save the Time of the Writer…It’s what a Book Coach Does!

In 1931, Ranganathan first published his blockbuster of the library world, The Five Laws of Library Science.  You may laugh, but most librarians still take these laws pretty seriously, albeit with a few parenthetical updates.  

Here are the five laws:

  1. Books Are For Use
  2. Every Reader His/Her Book
  3. Every Book Its Reader
  4. Save The Time Of The Reader
  5. The Library Is A Growing Organism

While we could have quite a philosophical discussion about whether these laws apply just to books, and how do we define a book anyway, what I want to focus on in this post is #4.  One of the core functions of a librarian is to provide reader’s advisory, in layman’s terms, to match readers with books based on their interests, preferences, etc. Providing a shortcut for the reader with helpful, careful suggestions and listening to them to get an idea of what they might like and then being familiar enough with what is available to match them with something they want to read, is to save the time of the reader. 

I would like to suggest that if we rewrote these rules for Book Coaches, #4 would be:  Save the Time of the Writer.  A book coach saves the time of the writer, by giving them a framework so they can write their book with elements such as plot, character, conflict, and more firmly in mind.  A book coach helps a writer set goals and manage their writing.  A book coach provides feedback along the way, so that the first draft might resemble a 3rd draft;  writers can address issues in revisions to make their book the best one the writer can write.  Book Coaches help writers tell stories in compelling ways, by providing them with scaffolding to build their skills—cheering them on when they are in the groove and supporting them when they need a professional set of eyes and perhaps a little tough love to move forward.

Writing is not for the faint of heart!  But Book Coaches can Save the Time of the Writer and help them on their writing journey. 

Throwback Thursday: Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

This is a beautifully written book about a family suffering a terrible loss.  Lydia, the favorite daughter of a mixed race family (Caucasian and Asian) has drowned.  Surprisingly, though there are sad moments, the tone is hopeful.  Ng explores what happens when people’s lives don’t turn out the way they thought they would; when characters must adjust their dreams to fit the reality of their lives.  She also delves into the miscommunication that can occur when family members don’t really listen to each other or talk to each other; the assumptions we make are generally wrong and often hurtful.  Ng’s language is lyrical and she employs the rarely used omniscient first person for almost every character of the story.  This allows the reader to uncover the truth one person at a time, through narration of the present, memories, thoughts, and actions as each person moves through the tragedy that has befallen them.  A heartrending portrait of a family in crisis, Everything I Never Told You is well worth reading and discussing.  It will stay with you long after you turn or swipe the final page. 

**This review was originally written in 2014

What is your What If?

In Lisa Cron’s book, Story Genius, she writes about the what if in fiction.  The “what if” provides the external impetus that will kick off the protagonist’s internal struggle (43).  The what if on its own is not enough for a book, but it can be a powerful way to begin to frame an idea and see where it takes you. Here are some examples from stories you may be familiar with:

  • What if a child who was mistreated by people who were supposed to care for him grew into a position of power over these same people? (The Count of Monte Cristo)
  • What if there was an incriminating letter that had to be hidden, but the police were at the door? (“The Purloined Letter”)
  • What if there was a way to murder someone who was generally despised in such a way as to guarantee that everyone involved would keep silent? (Murder on the Orient Express)
  • What if someone invented a time machine that could go backward and forward in time? (The Time Machine)
  • What if a man who was content with his life of privilege and with doing what was expected of him by everyone else, met a woman who won his heart despite her unorthodox ways? (The Age of Innocence)

One way to think about this is to consider the what if as the premise or the “inciting incident” of a novel, but it is a little more nuanced than that.  The what if is an external action or circumstance, but it has to push the protagonist into an internal struggle.  It cannot just be a cool premise or it will fall flat.  For example, in the original Planet of the Apes movie, the final irony is revealed when Charleton Heston sees the Statue of Liberty and realizes that he has traveled not to another planet, but to the future of the earth.  In the Marky Mark version of the Planet of the Apes, the ending has zero punch, because, and this is what the director even says in the commentary, they just tried to come up with a cool twist.  If you’ve seen it, they travel to another planet and when they come back to earth, with NO EXPLANATION, it has been taken over by apes.  Dumb and SO unsatisfying.  I am not going to entertain debate on what might explain this stupid ending; the point I want to make is that you can’t just aim for a cool twist/what if.  It has to make sense and it has to have a point, and it has to drive the protagonist to struggle.

With all of this in mind, think about your idea for a book.  What is the What If that will cause your protagonist to make a decision, take an action, start the struggle?

Throwback Thursday: Avenue of Spies: a true story of terror, espionage, and one American family’s heroic resistance in Nazi-occupied France by Alex Kershaw (2015)

This text is from the review I wrote in 2015.  Even MORE books about WWII have come out of the woodwork since then.

The past few years of major anniversaries for important events of World War II coupled with the passing of so many of the heroes and villains of that time have brought forth a plethora of interesting and lesser known stories from the war.  Avenue of Spies tells of the occupation of Paris and the French Resistance from the perspective of an American doctor who lived in Paris and worked at the American hospital there in alternating chapters with the point of view of the Nazi and SS officers who took over most of the residences on the Avenue Foch, where Doctor Sumner Jackson also lived.  The tale includes heroic deeds, nasty Nazis, and slimy collaborators, many of whom were able to thrive after the war when others whose crimes were arguably less egregious, but whose influence and social standing were not as great, were imprisoned or executed.  The Germans are portrayed almost completely unsympathetically, as subhuman sadists, which is unfortunate.  A more balanced portrayal might have given the book more depth.  Though there were several gripping passages, as a whole, it is not of the caliber of Ben Macintyre’s work in Double Cross, or Operation Mincemeat.  The material is all there, but somehow, the narrative doesn’t gel.  The reader keeps waiting for the story to get off the starting blocks and it never does.  This is for readers who will read ANYTHING about WWII.  If you are more selective, there are plenty of other options.

Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell

If you, like me, have been putting off reading this, stop, pick it up right now and start reading it!

Sometimes I put off reading a book because of the hype.  Sometimes I put it off because it has won a lot of awards and that intimidates me.  Sometimes I put it off because I think I know what it is about and I’m just not in the mood.  I am not sure why I put off reading Hamnet for so long. I remember thinking when it first came out it sounded like just my kind of book and I added it to my TBR list, but anyone who knows me knows that my TBR list is pretty long and sometimes a really good book ends up forgotten or pushed to near the bottom of my list.  It’s kind of like your email inbox.  You leave a message in it because you want to remember to do something, but then the new messages keep piling up and pretty soon that thing you wanted to remember is way down on the second or third page of your inbox and you forget about it.  Well folks, if Hamnet was that way for you, as it was for me, I am telling you to get the book right now and read it.  It is that good.

It is beautifully written and emotionally engaging, right from the beginning.  You’ll have a hard time putting it down, even though the PB version clocks in at 367 pages and if you read the author’s note (and you should, you really should) it is a little bit longer yet. I am not exaggerating when I write that this novel took my breath away.  It made me sit and think afterwards for long minutes, and even over the next several days, I kept thinking about it.  It is affecting, it is lovely, it brings history near, it makes you feel close to people who lived over 400 years ago. It tells the stories of what may have been, what could have been the life of people we know very little about in actuality. If you can’t decide what to read next and you haven’t read this, please pick it up.  If your book club is unsure where to go next, try it.  I guarantee the discussion will be rich and full, just like this book.

Toward that end, here are some discussion questions:

  1. Given what happens to Hamnet, why do you think O’Farrell chose his name as her title?
  2. What about this book was unexpected for you? Why?
  3. When O’Farrell writes that Hamnet was the thing that held them all together, what do you think she means?
  4. In the author’s note, O’Farrell writes that she was afraid that agents or editors would want to take the passages telling the story of how the Plague germs got to Stratford out, but was very happy they were left in the finished book.  What did you think about those sections in the book?
  5. Some scholars have made jokes at Anne/Agnes’s expense about Shakespeare leaving her his “second best bed.”  What did you think of how O’Farrell chose to frame this?
  6. What did Anne/Agnes’s house mean to her?  To the family?
  7. Which image from the book stayed with you the longest?  Why do you think that is?

Plotting Your Cozy Mystery

Did you know that Agatha Christie is the BEST SELLING NOVEL WRITER OF ALL TIME?  Only the Bible and Shakespeare have outsold her.  It’s true, people love murder.  Cozies are a particular brand of murder, though.  For those of you who aren’t regular cozy readers or fans of Agatha (no way!), here are the genre conventions in a nutshell:

Image from Wikimedia Commons
  • The first murder happens pretty quickly.
  • There is a limited pool of suspects; think a country village, a club, a team, etc.
  • There is not a lot of foul language, sex happens off page, and there is a distinct lack of gore.  Cozy murders are somewhat sterile and bloodless, or at least the blood is not discussed much on the page.
  • There will be several good suspects all of whom have a secret.
  • There will be red herrings.
  • The murder is like a puzzle and the sleuth is usually an amateur, though there can be law enforcement involved.

NOTE:  this is not an exhaustive list, nor will EVERY cozy conform to every convention on this list.

I have recently read two superb examples of this genre, which I found immensely satisfying and gripping reads.  The Thursday Murder Club by Richard Osman and The Appeal by Janice Hallett.  You can see reviews of each elsewhere on Readerly.net.  Both of these are examples of playfulness within the genre.  Each of them breaks at least one of the above genre conventions, but they are still squarely in the Cozy genre due to the limited pool of suspects and the amateur sleuthing.  If you are a cozy writer, both of these titles represent aspirational works of quality writing, plotting, and character development.  The Appeal deserves extra points for doing so in an epistolary format, which is a very difficult structure to maintain and to write well.  Brava.

If you are thinking of writing your own cozy, I can recommend Nancy J. Cohen’s very excellent work, Writing the Cozy Mystery.  I read the second expanded edition and found it very useful for thinking about how to write in this genre and do it well.   I created a handout based on some of the advice in her book, available below.  The handout helps you decide on a victim and a pool of suspects, so you can get started writing your own Cozy Mystery!