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April 2015

Book Review: OH! YOU PRETTY THINGS by Shanna Mahin

oh you pretty thingsJess Dunne, the protagonist of Shanna Mahin’s Oh! You Pretty Things, is 29 years old, recently divorced, third-generation Hollywood and not sure what to do with her life. The story opens with her quitting a barista job at a hipster café because she’s not hip enough to get the desirable morning shifts.

One thing she can do is cook, and the guy who takes her coveted shifts at the café refers her to his former boss, an Oscar-winning film composer who might be agoraphobic. Jess becomes the composer’s personal assistant, which leads to her landing the plum gig of assistant to glamorous A-list actress Eva Carlton. Just when Jess is enjoying her life adjacent to the spotlight, her estranged, former-child-star mother comes to Los Angeles for an extended visit, threatening Jess’s sense of stability and making her revisit some ugly secrets from her past.

Jess is a likable heroine, an anchor among flighty people. What helps her maintain her sanity is a sense of humor (“I’ve been watching the shopping channel so long, I’m running out of reasons to not order those fake ponytails.”) Though she’s not an actress, Jess keeps up a façade to hide the painful childhood her mother subjected her to.

Pretty Things skewers the film industry with a ring of truth and equal helpings of snark and heart because Mahin, like Jess, is third-generation Hollywood. But the novel is less about the gloss and excess than about finding one’s identity and place in a slippery world full of illusions.

This originally appeared as a starred review in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is republished here with permission.

Amazon | IndieBound


Q & A with Author Michael Robotham

photo: Tony Mott

photo: Tony Mott

Australian author Michael Robotham was an investigative journalist and ghostwriter of memoirs for celebrities and politicians, among others, before publishing his first novel, Suspect, featuring psychologist Joe O’Loughlin, who’s afflicted with Parkinson’s disease. O’Loughlin has appeared in subsequent novels, two of which won the best novel category of the Ned Kelly Awards, the top Australian literary crime prize.

Robotham’s 10th novel, Life or Death (read my review here), is a standalone, about a man named Audie Palmer who, after serving a lengthy prison sentence, escapes from prison one day before he’s due to be released. Stephen King says it’s “a nerve-shredding thriller with the heart and soul so often missing from lesser crime and suspense novels.”

Why did it take 20 years between the idea for Life or Death and publication?

I first stumbled upon the idea in March 1995 when I read a small newspaper story about a man who escaped from prison the day before his release. The obviously question was why? This intrigued me as the setup for a novel, but it took me a long while to think of a compelling reason, which I knew had to involve a love story. Then it took me even longer before I felt I had the writing skills necessary to make readers believe that Audie Palmer would endure 10 terrible years in prison because of a promise he made. I am always trying to challenge myself as a writer and this was a huge challenge, not just in the writing, but also choosing Texas as the setting.

What made you choose Texas? What were some of the pleasures and challenges of capturing that Southern feeling?

I didn’t so much choose to write about Texas as choose to write about Audie Palmer and then had to find a location that I think fit his story. I spent the longest week of my life in the Ozark Mountains in Arkansas because I initially thought I might set the story there. I settled in Texas because, as the slogan goes, Texas is “like a whole other country.” It’s not just the size or the cultural diversity–it’s the food, the pride, the people and the history. What other state has its own Independence Day or bumper stickers threatening to secede? I also saw plates that said Don’t mess with Texas, but I don’t know whether that was an anti-littering message or a threat.

I spent five weeks in Texas doing the research, sitting in bars, chatting to locals and driving enough miles to get white-line fever. At the same time, I was listening to audio books by Cormac McCarthy, William Faulkner, James Lee Burke and Philipp Meyer, trying to get the rhythm of the language.

It’s a daunting prospect to set a novel in a strange place but hopefully I haven’t made too many mistakes.

Some of the scenes, especially ones involving Audie on the road, evoke a sense of music, as if they’re movie montages. If Audie’s life had a soundtrack, which songs would be included?

I’m terrible with music questions, which is why there are so few songs referenced in my novels. I should name songs like “Yellow Rose of Texas” or “Galveston” but that wouldn’t be telling you the truth. I am, however, a huge fan of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, so they have to be included on any soundtrack, along with Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” and the classic gospel blues number “John the Revelator.”

life or deathSuspect was intended as a standalone but the characters were developed into a series. Life or Death is being touted as a standalone…but is it really?

No plans as yet [to make it a series]. I do have another idea for an American novel, but might set it farther north in Maine. I have thought about bringing FBI agent Desiree Furness into a future novel. She’s a great character, so the answer is: “Watch this space.”

Tell us about your reaction when Stephen King raved about your work.

I regard Stephen King as the world’s greatest storyteller since Charles Dickens. When I read his comments about Life or Death, I said to my wife, “It won’t matter if I never sell another book. I can retire now. I will sit in my rocking chair and prepare to tell my grandchildren that the great Stephen King once called me a master.” Believe me–it doesn’t get any better than that.

Let’s hope retirement is many years from now for you. In addition to journalism, you’ve done your share of ghostwriting. One downside is that you don’t get credit for the writing, but there must’ve been perks, too.

Most people do jobs where they don’t get their name written up in big bold type. Teachers. Postmen. Surgeons. Social workers….

As a ghostwriter, I got to look at the world through a fresh set of eyes every time I took on a new project. I had to capture a new voice and immerse myself in an interesting life, performing a sort of literary ventriloquism where nobody recognized my presence. This was challenging and rewarding creatively, and also made me a good living.

Anonymity didn’t bother me because the people who counted–publishers and agents–knew which ghostwriter was responsible for a book. They gave me the credit, even if the general public had no idea.

Another perk was that I could be invisible. I didn’t have to do media or publicity. I still read all the reviews and celebrated the bestseller lists, but my job was done.

If someone asked you to write your memoir but you didn’t feel like doing it, which author—living or dead—would you choose to ghostwrite it? What would be the title?

Tough question. I guess I should be writing my own memoir, but if I had to put my life into another writer’s hands I would choose Hunter S. Thompson. Not for accuracy, but because I’m sure he’d make my memoir more exciting than the reality. And what would it be called? The Last Word.

This interview originally appeared in Shelf Awareness for Readers and is reprinted here with permission.


Nerdy Special List April 2015

April is always a big month for me. Not only is it my birth month, it’s also that of my mother, husband, goddaughter, and two close friends. I should buy stock in Hallmark considering how many birthday cards I bought this week alone.

This year, April is also the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, which caused my family and me to flee to the US. Right before we left, my mom gave each of us kids a small bag and told us to pack only essentials. I crammed in a big book I’d just gotten for my birthday and that took up all the space. Which was fine with me, but not with Mom. I had to leave the book behind and pack clothes instead. I still think about that book because it no longer exists.

Speaking of books, the following are April releases my book-blogger friends recommend. I didn’t read anything outstanding but luckily they’re here to pick up the slack.

From Jen at Jen’s Book Thoughts:

Michelle Obama, A Life by Peter Slevin (Knopf, April 7)
michelle obama a life

Washington Post political correspondent Peter Slevin’s biography of the inaugural African-American first lady is informative and inspirational. With meticulous research and the anecdotes provided by those from her inner circle, Slevin depicts a hard-working, courageous woman who overcame many obstacles on her road to success.

Michelle Obama was raised with the belief that you don’t make excuses—regardless of how legit they may be—you persevere. And so she did. The other strong belief instilled in her from childhood was that once you succeed, you reach back and help others behind you. Slevin illustrates how her life has been a testament to these beliefs. Michelle Obama, A Life is a captivating, moving look at a true American role model.

How I Shed My Skin: Unlearning the Lessons of Racist Childhood by Jim Grimsley (Algonquin, April 14)

how i shed my skinIn his stunning and often humorous memoir, Jim Grimsley looks back at the way racism was quietly instilled in him from birth. He was in the sixth grade when his North Carolina town began integrating the schools, and his story is that of the children that carried out the mandate handed down from politicians.

While adults battled the desegregation laws, the children quietly learned to attend classes, play sports, even support causes together. Losing the deep-seeded racists beliefs wasn’t a fast or easy or even complete process, but Grimsley examines his own journey down that road and how it shaped the man he became.

Engrossing, funny, and heart-breaking, How I Shed My Skin is an honest exploration of the roots of racism and the contribution a generation of young people made to the advancement of race relations in the United States.

From Erin at In Real Life:

The Mercy of the Night by David Corbett (Thomas & Mercer, April 7)

mercy of the nightPart legal thriller, part character study, and (large) part psychological suspense tale, The Mercy of the Night is at once interesting, scary, emotional, and perplexing. And I mean that as a compliment.

Phelan Tierney (yes, he knows he has two last names) helps people. He has a PI license, but he’s more a favors-for-friends PI than a jobs-by-the-book sort of investigator. One of his good deeds involves tutoring young women who are living in a rehab shelter, having escaped a range of desperate circumstances. When one of his students runs away, he agrees to try to find her and convince her to come back.

The young woman is question is Jacqi, whose horrific experiences as a child have set her life on a downward spiral, the force of which is apparently too strong for her to overcome. As the story develops, it becomes clear that in addition to tragedy, mystery and secrets play a part in her tale.

Corbett has a real way with words, giving each character a clear tone and painting a gorgeously clear picture of places and circumstances without getting all three-syllable-y about it. His books have won numerous accolades, and The Mercy of the Night will no doubt earn him more.

From Lauren at Malcolm Avenue Review:

Spinster: Finding a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick (Crown, April 21)

spinsterFrom the time she was a little girl, freelance writer and The Atlantic contributing editor Kate Bolick found a sense of self in solitude. As an adult, she ran up against what she terms the “two questions that define every woman’s existence”—whom to marry and when. Part memoir, part sociological and feminist study going back more than 100 years, Spinster: Finding a Life of One’s Own is Bolick’s story of her two-decade journey to solve this internal conflict.

She does so by sharing the five female “awakeners” who helped guide her along various turns in her life path. These guides include poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, essayist Maeve Brennan, columnist Neith Boyce, novelist Edith Wharton, and social visionary Charlotte Perkins Gilman. Whether or not you agree with or relate to Bolick’s premise, the lives of these five women and their impact—on Bolick and societal norms—make for an engrossing read.

Which April releases are you looking forward to?