Featured Book Club — Surprise, Arizona

February 16, 2012 at 10:14 am , by

Thanks to the LHJ Book Club (have you checked out our March pick, Vaclav & Lena? It’s a must-read!), we’ve been talking about our favorite characters, plot lines and themes for weeks around our office—we can’t stop! With book club on the brain, we’re itching to hear about other clubs around the country, and will be featuring one each month right here on our blog.

Our first club is from Surprise, AZ (doesn’t that sound like a fun place to live?), and they are one bonded bunch. “We’re coming up on our fourth anniversary as a club and were talking about everything that has changed in our lives since we first met,” says member Tina Mollica. “Two new babies, graduations, children entering the military, retirement, the loss of parents and jobs, and some major changes at our church. We started as eight strangers and became 11 life long friends.”

Here’s what some of the other members have to say about their beloved group:

Do you have a name for your book club?

“We often refer to ourselves as The Greatest Book Club Ever!  I don’t know if it’s an official name, but it shows how we feel about each other.” – Krystal Ford

Is there anything special you do for each meeting?

“Different gals volunteer to host our meetings, but we don’t adhere to a strict rotation. When one of our books has been made into a movie, then we have a movie night and try to all attend it together. But we all agree that movie night does not replace book club meeting for that month—it’s just too important!” – Colleen Kolb

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Late Bloomers, Listen Up: She’s Publishing Her First Novel at 60

February 16, 2012 at 10:00 am , by

Meredith Maran (at right) has been a working writer for more than 40 years, turning out ten nonfiction books and scores of magazine articles (including a fair share for Ladies’ Home Journal). But this week marks a brand-new milestone for the brand-new grandmother: the publication of her first novel, A Theory of Small Earthquakes. Set in the countercultures of Oberlin College in the 1980s and Berkeley, California in the late ‘90s and onward, this “deliciously messy love story” (to quote from one of the blurbs on the book’s cover) is about a protagonist, Alison, caught in a love triangle with her former (female) lover and her husband—and about the son all three of them come together to raise.

Here, Maran chats about the book with her friend and fellow novelist, Caroline Leavitt (at left), author of the New York Times and USA Today bestseller Pictures of You, as well as eight previous novels.

Caroline Leavitt: What sparked the idea for A Theory of Small Earthquakes

Meredith Maran: A decade ago, a friend told me a true story about such an untraditional family, whose existence required so much daily forgiveness on the part of all involved, I thought, “If only I were a novelist, that would make a great plot.”

As I watched the story unfold in real time in my friend’s real life, the itch to write it finally overcame my fear of attempting a novel. After a lifetime of writing only nonfiction, that fear was epic—and, as it turned out, well founded. The novel took two years to write, five years to rewrite, and many gnawed fingernails to sell to a publisher. And it’s been the most thrilling writing experience of my life.

CL: I love the title [a theory of small earthquakes refers to the idea that the occurrence of many earthquakes of lesser intensity offsets the possibility of a single catastrophic one]. Can you talk about it? 

MM: Over the eons it took to bring this book from concept to publication, the novel had at least five working titles, starting with The Surrogate and ending with Boy Girl Boy Girl, which came in a close second. Early on, the phrase “A Theory of Small Earthquakes” came to me in a flash, and I loved it. But there were so many factors to consider, and such a big job the title had to do.

My dad was a true Mad Man—a Madison Avenue ad executive. I grew up naming products at the dinner table, so considering the impact of the title on marketing the book came naturally.

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Book Club Wrap-up: The Revenge of The Radioactive Lady

February 14, 2012 at 7:13 pm , by

Last month, we pored over kooky characters, relished dark humor, and were shocked by a surprise ending (you’ll flip for it!) reading The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady. We hope you got the chance to spend time with Elizabeth Stuckey-French’s addicting novel, and if you haven’t picked it up, we know her letter to readers will whet your appetite. And then, since we’re sure your book club will want to adopt it as your next pick, we’ve got discussion questions and an exclusive Q&A with the author as well.

But now, with the beautiful new LHJ on newsstands everywhere, it’s time to introduce our next pick! This month we’ll be digging into Vaclav & Lena, by debut novelist Haley Tanner. It’s love story–you’ll swoon over every page–that has quite the magical theme. We’re also happy to announce a terrific giveaway! Throughout the month, you can enter to win one of five LHJ Book Club libraries—all of our picks so far, signed by the authors! Visit our book club page to enter, and to learn more about Vaclav & Lena! And, as always, stay with us on Facebook, Twitter, and right here on our blog to join the conversation as we chat about the book all month long.

But first, tell us what you thought of The Revenge of The Radioactive Lady! Comment here or tweet us at @LHJMagazine with the hashtag #lhjbookclub.

Lessons from a Romance Expert

February 14, 2012 at 12:29 pm , by

Who better to know how to heat up your Valentine’s Day than a woman whose business is romance? Romance novelist Robyn Carr (robyncarr.com) has been honored with multiple RITA awards from the Romance Writers of America and her Virgin River series (the newest installment is Redwood Bend, coming out next month) landed her on the New York Times bestseller list. Here’s Carr’s advice on how to apply the lessons of romance novels to your own love life.

1) Set the scene. If you’ve ever read a romance, you know that the sex can be pretty steamy. But rarely do the characters just start going at it and rarely do I give them a chance to get away to a quiet lodge. That’s just not how life is. But I do like to set the scene—let them flirt a little to heat things up. So how can you do that in real life? Traditional things like candles and good lighting are nice, but go the extra step and get rid of distractions. Turn off the phone. Turn off the TV. Send the kids to your mom’s house. Turn on some music so you can’t hear the garbage truck doing its weekly pick-up. (And try a faster-paced mix of tunes for a change!) Make the two of you the focus so the “scene” can happen without any interruptions. My characters are at their hottest when they’re concentrating on each other and nothing else.

2) Write your own romance story. Sometimes words are all you need. Take it from someone who spends her whole life creating romantic scenes from words alone. Take advantage of their power by sending a letter detailing your plans for Valentine’s Day (and night) to your partner. You can stick it in the mail a week before Valentine’s Day so he has a few days to imagine what’s coming. For some last minute “story-telling,” a sexy text message will work too. Just be sure no one at his office will get to his phone before he does!

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Book News: In Defense of Introverts

February 13, 2012 at 4:41 pm , by

A few weeks ago, I came across this cartoon and laughed out loud. See that second box? The one with the person excited about an evening at home, anything but barhopping or book club? That person is so me. And, like many introverts, I’ve felt bad about it more than once in my life. Like I was weird for retreating to the bathroom at parties when I just needed a break from all that merriment or too low-profile to be class president or newspaper editor because I wasn’t a “leader.” Author Susan Cain often felt like that, too, but she always suspected that it was the rest of the world—not her—that was getting it wrong. Now, her New York Times bestseller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking shines a light on introverts (whether we like it or not) and makes the case that we, too, have an important role in a world that reveres extroverts.

Recently, I chatted with Cain about the untapped power she champions in Quiet.

You think of yourself as an introvert. What has that meant in your life?

When I started practicing law, I thought my nature was going to be a disadvantage for me. But eventually, I realized I have a whole constellation of other qualities serving me well—like listening skills and preparing carefully. I wasn’t one to take over a meeting, but I was good at creating one-on-one alliances with people behind the scenes. And these skills can be very powerful. Also, at first I assumed that my personality was a function of gender—that the things I did were things a woman would do. But, then I started to look around and saw that plenty of women had different styles from me, just as plenty of men were more like me.

Are women often assumed to be introverted?

In some ways, yes, traditionally women have been expected to be quieter and more passive. So for these reasons, historically it’s been easier for a woman to be an introvert than a man. I think that’s changing now. I consider myself a strong feminist, but I do think that feminism can make things harder for female introverts, because of this model that says that you should be very bold and take the world by the horns. An introverted form of power has a very different style to it.

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From One of LHJ’s Own: “Why I Wrote a Historical Thriller” (And a book giveaway!)

January 25, 2012 at 10:52 am , by

First-time novelist and today’s guest blogger Nancy Bilyeau was a features editor at Ladies’ Home Journal for three years. Here, Bilyeau tells the story of how her new novel, The Crown, morphed from a pipe dream into a reality. Plus, find out how to win a copy of her book at the end of the post!

“I want to write a novel set in sixteenth century England.”

That’s what I told the four people sitting in a circle in a small 5th-floor apartment in the West Village seven years ago. In a “What the heck?” spirit, I’d joined a fiction workshop held every Monday night. I wasn’t sure what kind of novel I wanted to write except the century I’d place it in. I’d loved Tudor history since I was 11 years old and saw The Six Wives of Henry the Eighth with my parents. Over the years, I kept coming back to biographies and historical fiction set in the 16th century. I enjoyed the drama of the personalities, the wars and the divorces, the excitement of the Renaissance—even the fashion.

I wanted to write a woman’s story, but I felt that plenty had already been written about the queens and princesses and ladies-in-waiting. I settled on a protagonist, Joanna Stafford, who was a nun. Henry VIII destroyed the monasteries when he broke from Rome and I was drawn to that turmoil.  While most Tudor historical fiction takes the side of the Reformation, I thought it would be more interesting to explore what happened to the nuns, friars and monks whose lives were upended by this sweeping transformation.

My first pages were not good and my writing group, while perfectly polite, let me know. But I kept at it. I decided to make my story a thriller, and loved nothing more than losing myself in research and plotting my story. I read everything I could find on the Dissolution of the Monasteries and the people at its center. My kind of book isn’t researched through Google: I spent hours at the New York Public Library, poring through the collections. I discovered some of the most exciting, little-known facts in books written more than a century ago. In some cases those writers had access to sources lost to us. I also started corresponding through emails with historians and curators in England. It took months for me to find out what a prisoner would eat while imprisoned in the Tower of London, but I did it! When I got a copy of a 16th century daily “meal sheet” (think mutton, mutton and more mutton), I danced around my apartment.

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Book Club Guest Blog: Motives, A Character Discussion

January 13, 2012 at 10:33 am , by

This week’s post is by Neely Kennedy of Reading Group Choices, a leading online resource for book club tips and discussible selections. 

In the LHJ Book Club pick for February, The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, author Elizabeth Stuckey-French explores the motives that propel her characters to act in very strange ways in this wonderfully quirky novel. The main character, Marylou, is a woman hell-bent on exacting revenge for a secret government medical study that caused the death of her eight-year-old daughter.

Motives are a critical component in character development for compelling story telling, and in a book club setting, one of the most important focuses of discussion.  A gifted author skillfully develops characters that intrigue us, and keep us turning the pages to find out the “why” behind the characters’ actions. Similarly, a good writer will allow the characters’ motives to unfold in a way that, even if we find their actions morally questionable at the beginning of the book, we will gradually start to understand them, sympathize with them and, usually, forgive them for their flaws.

These descriptions of the characters in The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady are followed by brief excerpts that provide glimpses into the real emotions underlying the motives of each of Stuckey-French’s characters. This is a technique you can use as a tool to provoke fascinating book-club discussions of almost any title.

Marylou’s Motive: Revenge

Marylou’s underlying emotions of deep anger, grief, and loneliness stem from the loss of her daughter to bone cancer because of a ghastly radioactive cocktail she was instructed to drink during her pregnancy.

Desperation was the mother of invention. By the time she got back to Reeve’s Court, Marylou had devised a brand-new attack plan. She would continue with her efforts to make Wilson remember and apologize, but she would also take steps to destroy his family, the way he’s destroyed hers. It would surely make him miserable to watch his family suffer, the way she’d had to watch Helen and Teddy suffer.

Ava’s Motive:  Acceptance

Ava is admired for her beauty, but overprotected and misunderstood because of her Asperger’s Syndrome, she is desperate to be independent and live a life of relative normalcy.

It was depressing to realize that she didn’t fit in here, and she sure didn’t fit in with the so-called typical people. So what was left? Living with her mother for the rest of her life? She’d rather kill herself.

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