Paris for One and Other Stories by Jojo Moyes

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In the follow-up to her bestselling novels, Me before You and After You, author Jojo Moyes has published  an  eclectic  collection of nine short stories each from a woman’s perspective and dealing with  a variety of themes from troubled relationships to near magical shoes. The longest story in the set is “Paris for One” and centres on Nell who by her own admission is “not the adventurous type”, but has given up a planned trip to Brighton to have a romantic trip to Paris with her boyfriend, Peter.  At the outset it is clear that Peter has no intention of joining her, and instead of following her routine inclinations and cancelling, she embarks for Paris on her own.  The weekend does not start promisingly when Nell finds her hotel has double booked her and she spends the first night sharing with a stranger.  Preserving she soon discovers the delights of the city and the company of an attractive Frenchman named Fabien.

My favourite tale is “Between the Tweets”  and follows a formerly popular TV personality with a squeaky clean image and sinking ratings.  Mr. Travis is being trolled on the internet by a woman who claims to have had a spicy relationship with him.  The story is a delight about a PR nightmare with an unusual twist.

Each tale in this collection is intriguingly written, and  the characters are well drawn (if not necessary all entirely likeable) using dialogue for the most part mixed with subtle narration . Moyes experience as a journalist as well as a fiction writer is evident in the succinct  use of description that give the barest of details and leaves much to the reader’s imagination.

This would be a great and quick read for Moyes fans and anyone would relishes the joys of an interesting short story.

 

Interview with Ruta Sepetys

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Photo of Ruta Sepetys by by Magda Starowieyska

Photo by Magda Starowieyska

Ruta Sepetys is the New York Times bestselling author of Between Shades of Gray, Out of the Easy, and Salt to the Sea. Born and raised in Michigan, she grew up in a family of artists, readers, and music lovers. She currently lives in a treehouse in the hills of Tennessee. You can find her online at rutasepetys.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your newest book, Salt to the Sea?

Ruta Sepetys: My father’s cousin was involved in the refugee evacuation of East Prussia and was granted passage on the Wilhelm Gustloff. By a twist of fate, she did not board the ship the day it sailed. She shared the story with me and that inspired me to write about it.

How fortunate! Your novels are all historical fiction; how much time do you typically spend on research for them?

I typically spend three years researching each novel. I know it seems like a very long time, but it goes so quickly!

What was the most interesting fact you discovered while researching the Wilhelm Gustloff?

There were so many interesting and surprising things I discovered, but one that stays with me is that it’s estimated that during World War II, over 25,000 people lost their lives in the Baltic Sea.

Wow! On your website, you say that while researching your books, you interview people who have experienced the event you’re writing about, then you combine their stories into one character.  Have you always used this method to make your characters?  

Yes, I generally interview and research the background of dozens of people and then weave elements of all of them into one character. That allows me to represent a larger human experience.

Are any of the characters in Salt to the Sea based off of real people, or are they all amalgamations of people you have interviewed?

The main character of Joana was partially inspired by the story of a Lithuanian nurse who fled during the evacuation, but then I quilted together elements from several other witnesses as well.

All three of your books are set between 1940-1950.  Why does that decade appeal to you?

I’m drawn to stories of strength through struggle and the journey of finding meaning through hardship. The war and post war period are full of experiences of hope, courage, love, and loss.

So what are you working on next?

I’m currently working on a novel set in 1957 Madrid, during the dictatorship of Francisco Franco in Spain.

Good luck with that!  Let’s finish up with a few quick questions about reading. What book or author inspired you to write?

There were many authors and many books, but as a young child I was incredibly inspired by the work of Roald Dahl. His books are so full of creativity and imagination, of innocent young people at the mercy of unsavory adults. I still cherish my copy of James and the Giant Peach.

Is there a book or author that you think everyone should read?

I love Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. It reminds us that even if suffering is unavoidable, we alone choose how we cope with our suffering.

What are you currently reading?

I’m currently reading research materials for my new book, so I’m reading Interrogating Francoism by Helen Graham. Once I’m finished with research, I can’t wait to read Vincent and Theo: The Van Gogh Brothers by Deborah Heiligman.

 

Salt to the Sea cover

Nine Women, One Dress by Jane L. Rosen

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This elegantly written book shows just how connected we all are.  Here in Thunder Bay, it’s common to discover you have something or someone in common to almost everyone you meet.  The “one degree of separation” phenomenon is understandable in a city the size of ours, but could it work in the metropolis of New York?  This book proves it can, and one incredible dress is the touchstone that unites a group of nine diverse women.  It’s appropriate that the dress at the centre of this book is an iconic little black dress.  The dress takes on a mantle of magic as it fills a specific need for each woman that wears it.   The dress is created by a pattern maker at the end of his career, so it’s special as soon as it’s made.  A fresh off the bus model has the privilege to wear it first, and is an instant star.  After that the dress becomes the main character of the story.  Rosen gives the nine women their own chapter and voice, as their lives intersect with the dress. The dress works its magic in the lives of a Bloomingdales sales girl, a private detective, and a personal assistant, among others.  Rosen’s writing is a delight to read, and helps keep all the stories straight.  Readers discussing this book online have shared their own stories of life-changing moments, revealing that sometimes truth is stranger than fiction!

 

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury

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Totalitarian control. Censorship. Loss of Freedom. All of these things are as much of a concern in 2017 as they were decades ago. Since Trump entered office, Orwell’s 1984 has become a bestseller once again. There are growing concerns about government control, “Big Brother” and spying to name a few. However, while 1984 has been highlighted in North America’s conscious, there is yet another perspective that should be considered: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. While not quite as popular as Orwell, Bradbury makes excellent observations about Western Society’s possible downfall.

The world of Fahrenheit 451 is one of entertainment- parlour families shown on large screens in individual’s houses that one can interact with, radio, and the pastime of driving extremely fast for the fun of it. The average citizen has been amused into submission. They have no interest in books. It happened slowly- universities gradually lost all enrolment and therefore closed; schools became places to learn how things operate- not why. Individuals gradually become submissive and they were happy to abide by the illegality of books as they continued to be increasingly entertained. At least, most citizens were.

Guy Montag is a fireman- not a person who extinguishes fires- a person who creates fires largely for the purpose to destroy books and the places that house them. One day he meets 17 year old Clarrise McClellan who is so peculiar she makes Guy question his worldview- especially his definition of happiness and his career choice. He brings these questions home and to work which makes his peers suspicious.  His superior, Captain Beatty, comes to comfort him in his doubts about being a fireman – to promote happiness, since books cause unease and unrest in people. Surely they are the detriment to people’s happiness and must be destroyed at all costs. But Montag wonders, how can that be true since his wife tried to take her own life with sleeping pills one night? Surely, there must be a reason why some risk their lives to protect books- like one lady he himself helped burn.

As I read through Fahrenheit 451 I couldn’t help but apply the themes to my own life. I have an entertainment machine in the palm of my hand-my smartphone- and I often use it for mindless dribble more than for educating myself. I look at the party culture of my generation and the inability many of my peers have to think about even the short term future and it saddens me. As I gain encouragement from Bradbury and other writers, I have been changing what I do in my spare moments- listening to audio books in the commute to and from work, taking classes, and so forth. Let’s not be made passive by entertainment, but use leisure for building us up.

 

Groot by Jeff Loveness and Brian Kesinger

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Since the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie came out in 2014, comic fans everywhere fell in love with this previously little-known superhero team. Out of the whole group of loveable misfits, my favourite is probably Groot, the sentient alien tree. I think I’m not alone in this because Marvel Comics decided to give Groot his own solo adventure, written by Jeff Loveness and drawn by Brian Kesinger.

 

Even though he’s been to Earth many, many times, in Groot’s opinion he’s never really experienced Earth. So he talks his friend, Rocket Raccoon, into going on a road trip to Earth. The pair take the slow route, starting their adventure by hitchhiking through space (after their vehicle explodes). Along the way they encounter a bounty hunter named Eris who wants the enormous bounty on Groot. When Eris accidentally captures Rocket instead, she decides to use him as bait. But no one accounted for Groot taking his time. He comes to Ricket’s rescue in his typical slow way, having many adventures and meeting many new people on his journey to save his friend.

 

While Groot is a crazy and fun adventure (as befits a superhero story), it’s also a very touching tale about friendship. Groot always finds the best in everyone, no matter who they are and what they can do. He’s also filled with a rather childlike sense of wonder at seeing the beauty of space and the marvels of our own planet; his outlook will have you looking at the world around you with fresh eyes. Groot made me love this big-hearted tree more than I thought possible, and I’m sure you’ll feel the same if you give this graphic novel a chance

Sting by Sandra Brown

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One of the perks of working in a library is getting recommendations from patrons on what they read and liked. Many of the novels that I have come to love the most were little gems that came from these suggestions, so when a number of library members with whom I normally share reading tastes said read “Sting” by Sandra Brown, I put it on my to-read list.  I’d read Sandra Brown years ago, when she was firmly in the romance or romantic suspense period of her career so I thought this would be more of the same and was delighted to find she’d carved out a great thriller, instead.

The novel begins with poised and polished Jordie Bennett in a seedy Southern bar, where she has attracted the attention of the bar patrons, especially two particular men.  Unknown to her, these men are hired assassins and she is their target.  Within a few pages, the hit has turned into a kidnapping as one of the killers, decides that rather than collecting a paltry sum for her death, he can shake her brother down for the 30 million in stolen mob money that he may have access to.  The story then twists into a neat little cat and mouse between Jordie and her kidnapper, Shaw Kinnard, a man with secrets of his own.  In this situation, Jordie must rely on her wits to survive.

“Sting” is like a roller coaster ride of a book, weaving happily in one direction before vering off somewhere completely different. I have read a number of thriller or romantic/thrillers but this one was full of surprises. Everything here works; the characters, the situation, the dialogue and the romantic elements complement each other well.

A number of writers who have honed their skills in the traditional romance market, like Catherine Coulter and Tess Gerritsen have moved on to write superb thrillers which I enjoy, now I will add Sandra Brown to that list. My only regret is that it took me forever to try her again. PS. I just checked out another of her books, “Friction”.

 

 

Interview with Amor Towles

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author picture of Amor TowlesAmor Towles was born and raised in the Boston area. He graduated from Yale University and received an MA in English from Stanford University. An investment professional for more than twenty years, he now devotes himself full time to writing. His first novel, Rules of Civility, was a New York Times bestseller in both hardcover and paperback. Towles lives in Manhattan with his wife and two children. You can find him online at amortowles.com.

Shauna Kosoris: What inspired your newest novel, A Gentleman in Moscow?

Amor Towles: Over the two decades that I was in the investment business, I travelled a good deal for my firm. Every year, I would spend weeks at a time in the hotels of distant cities meeting with clients and prospects. In 2009, while arriving at my hotel in Geneva (for the eighth year in a row), I recognized some of the people lingering in the lobby from the year before. It was as if they had never left. Upstairs in my room, I began playing with the idea of a novel in which a man is stuck in a grand hotel. Thinking that he should be there by force, rather than by choice, my mind immediately leapt to Russia—where house arrest has existed since the time of the Tsars. In the next few days, I sketched out most of the key events of A Gentleman in Moscow; over the next few years, I built a detailed outline; then in 2013, I retired from my day job and began writing the book.

A Gentleman in Moscow seems rich in historic details, particularly concerning the Metropol Hotel. What sort of research did you do for the book?

Rather than pursuing research driven projects, I like to write from areas of existing fascination. Even as a young man, I was a fan of the 1920s and 1930s, eagerly reading the novels, watching the movies, and listening to the music of the era. I used this deep-seated familiarity as the foundation for inventing my version of 1938 New York in Rules of Civility. Similarly, I chose to write A Gentleman in Moscow because of my longstanding fascination with Russian literature, culture, and history. Most of the texture of the novel springs from the marriage of my imagination with that interest. For both novels, once I had finished the first draft, I did some applied research in order to fine tune details. In the case of A Gentleman in Moscow, I gathered firsthand accounts of life in the Metropol from an array of prominent people including John Steinbeck, E. E. Cummings, and Lillian Hellman. You can survey these accounts at amortowles.com.

Having researched all of these firsthand accounts, are any of the characters in the novel based on real people?

None of the novel’s central characters are based on historical figures, or on people that I have known. That said, I have pick-pocketed my own life for loose change to include in the book such as these three examples:

The thimble game that the Count plays with Sofia was from my childhood. My great grandmother was a Boston Brahmin who lived until she was a hundred in a stately house. When my cousins and I visited her (in our little blue blazers), she would welcome us into her sitting room. After the appropriate amount of polite conversation, she would inform us that she had hidden several thimbles in the room and that whoever found one would receive a dollar—prompting a good deal of scurrying about.

When I was a boy of ten, I threw a bottle with a note into the Atlantic Ocean near summer’s end. When we got home a few weeks later there was a letter waiting for me on New York Times stationery. It turned out that my bottle had been found by Harrison Salisbury, a managing editor of the Times and the creator of its Op-Ed page. He and I ended up corresponding for many years, and I eventually met him on my first visit to New York when I was seventeen. It so happens that Salisbury was the Moscow bureau chief for the Times from 1949 to 1954. A few colorful details in A Gentleman in Moscow spring from his memoirs; he also makes a cameo late in the novel, and it is his fedora and trench coat that the Count steals to mask his escape.

Finally, the scene in which the tempestuous Anna Urbanova refuses to pick up her clothes, throws them out the window into the street, and then sheepishly sneaks out in the middle of the night to retrieve them, was a scene that played out between my parents shortly after their marriage. Although, it was my mother who wouldn’t pick up her clothes, and my father who threw them out the window. I’ll leave it to you to guess who went out in the middle of the night to pick them back up.

What was the biggest challenge in writing the book?

Initially, I imagined that the central challenge posed by the book was that I was trapping myself, my hero, and my readers in a single building for thirty-two years. But my experience of writing the novel ended up being similar to that of the Count’s experience of house arrest: the hotel kept opening up in front of me to reveal more and more aspects of life.

In the end, a much greater challenge sprang from the novel’s geometry. Essentially, A Gentleman in Moscow takes the shape of a diamond on its side. From the moment the Count passes through the hotel’s revolving doors, the narrative begins opening steadily outward. Over the next two hundred pages detailed descriptions accumulate of people, rooms, objects, memories, and minor events, many of which seem almost incidental. But then, as the book shifts into its second half, the narrative begins to narrow and all of the disparate elements from the first half converge. Bit characters, passing remarks, incidental objects come swirling together and play essential roles in bringing the narrative to its sharply pointed conclusion.

When effective, a book like this can provide a lot of unexpected satisfactions to the reader. The problem is that the plethora of elements in the first half can bog readers down making them so frustrated or bored that they abandon the book. So, my challenge was to craft the story, the point of view, and the language in such a way that readers enjoy the first half and feel compelled to continue despite their uncertainty of where things are headed. Whether or not I succeeded in doing so is up to you.

Can you comment a little more on that diamond structure of A Gentleman in Moscow?

From the day of the Count’s house arrest, the chapters advance by a doubling principal: one day after arrest, two days after, five days, ten days, three weeks, six weeks, three months, six months, one year, two years, four years, eight years, and sixteen years after arrest. At this midpoint, a halving principal is initiated with the narrative leaping to eight years until the Count’s escape, four years until, two years, one year, six months, three months, six weeks, three weeks, ten days, five days, two days, one day and finally, the turn of the revolving door.

While odd, this accordion structure seems to suit the story well, as we get a very granular description of the early days of confinement; then we leap across time through eras defined by career, parenthood, and changes in the political landscape; and finally, we get a reversion to urgent granularity as we approach the denouement. As an aside, I think this is very true to life, in that we remember so many events of a single year in our early adulthood, but then suddenly remember an entire decade as a phase of our career or of our lives as parents.

That’s very true. Why did you decide to write A Gentleman in Moscow as your follow up to Rules of Civility?

When I was deciding what to do after Rules, I picked A Gentleman from among a handful of projects I had been considering. In retrospect, I see that my choice was probably influenced by an unconscious desire for change, because the two novels are a study in contrasts. Where the former takes place over a single year, the latter spans thirty-two. Where the former roves across a city, the latter takes place in one building. Where the former is from the perspective of a young working class woman on the rise, the latter is from the perspective of an aging aristocrat who has lost everything. And where the former is virtually free of children and parents, the latter is very much concerned with generational relationships.

So what are you working on now?

Last year, Viking/Penguin contracted with me to publish my next two novels; now I just have to write them. I like to carefully design my books, beginning the writing process only once I have an extensive outline. I am still in the process of outlining my next book, but I suspect it will follow three eighteen-year-old boys on their way from the Midwest to New York City in the early 1950s…

I’d like to finish up with a couple of quick questions on what you read. What book or author inspired you to write?

I began writing when I began reading in first grade. Since then, the two practices have proceeded in parallel. Read, Write, Repeat. That said, probably my three favorite novels are Moby Dick, War & Peace, and 100 Years of Solitude.

And what are you currently reading?

For the last thirteen years, three friends and I have met monthly to discuss a novel over dinner. We generally work on projects over many months. Right now, we are in the process of reading 8 Philip Roth novels focused on those involving his alter ego, Zuckerman.

book cover of A Gentleman in Moscow