Tuesday, September 27, 2022

Ann Mah's Jacqueline in Paris

LUCY BURDETTE: You may or may not remember that I'm a huge fan of Ann Mah's books. I've read them more than once--Mastering the Art of French Eating, Kitchen Chinese, and my favorite, The Lost Vintage. You can imagine how excited I am that her newest, Jacqueline in Paris, is out today! She could not be here to celebrate with us, but her friend Lisa Brackmann is visiting to introduce the new book. Welcome Lisa!

LISA BRACKMANN: Dear Reds and Readers, thank you so much for this opportunity to introduce you to my friend Ann Mah’s new novel, Jacqueline in Paris, the story of Jacqueline Bouvier’s junior year abroad, before the world knew her as Jackie Kennedy. 

Jacqueline Bouvier arrived in France in September 1949, to a country still recovered from the devastation of World War 2, a time of deprivation and ration tickets and coming to grips with dangerous post-war politics. The year that followed Jackie would later say she loved most of any year of her life—and Paris itself would become one of her greatest influences. What she learned about Parisian politics and her remarkable fluency in French language and culture would serve her well as First Lady, in more ways than one. 

The novel’s genesis was a 2019 travel piece that Ann wrote for the New York Times (that’s a gift link so you can read it), retracing the First Lady’s footsteps in the City of Light, of her time spent in places like the Latin Quarter and Montparnasse. After the piece was published, Ann’s agent asked her to write a pitch for a novel based on this premise. She did, and the book sold almost immediately. 

While selling on a pitch and selling that quickly is not an everyday occurrence for your average working author, it’s not surprising to me that a publisher would want this book from Ann Mah, because Jackie Kennedy in post-war Paris? Who doesn’t want to read that? And I can’t think of a better person to write it than Ann. If you are unfamiliar with Ann’s work—well, I’m here to rectify that, because you will want to get to know it. 

Ann Mah has published five books, both fiction and non-fiction. She’s a travel and food writer whose work has appeared in everything from the Washington Post to Bon Appétit. Several of her books deal specifically with France: her novel, The Lost Vintage (a historical with a mystery at its heart, highly recommended!) and not one but two works about French cuisine, Mastering the Art of French Eating (a memoir about food, life and love), and Instantly French! (how to make classic French cuisine in your Instant Pot). And she lives in Paris and knows the city intimately: the perfect guide to Jacqueline’s time in the City of Light. 

Jackie Kennedy’s life was one filled with superlatives: impossibly dramatic, glamorous, tragic, history-making. But the Jacqueline Bouvier in Ann’s novel is a young woman on a journey of discovery that I think many of us can relate to. She was raised to be demure, to please others, to hide her wit and intellect. Paris allowed her a way to be. Away from her problematic parents and in an unfamiliar landscape, surrounded by people who did not know who she was supposed to be, she could discover who she really was, who she wanted to become. She could explore love on her own terms and experience pleasure, intimacy and heartbreak. Jacqueline learned about the complexities of global politics, challenged herself intellectually and even edited a novel for the first time, and she made life-long friends. Ann Mah shows us how Bouvier’s year in Paris was foundational to the American icon that she would become—and best of all provides a believable and sympathetic portrait of the person behind that mask of celebrity. 

REDS AND READERS: Did you ever find yourself navigating an unfamiliar environment at a pivotal time in your life? How did it change you? How did it help you change? 

ANN MAH is an American food and travel writer and the bestselling author of the novels Jacqueline in Paris, The Lost Vintage and other books. A frequent contributor to the New York Times Travel section, she lives in Paris and Washington, DC.

Lisa Brackmann is the NYT best-selling author of the Ellie McEnroe trilogy (Rock Paper Tiger, Hour of the Rat, Dragon Day), and suspense novels Getaway, Go-Between and Black Swan Rising.

KIRKUS, starred review: "A delightful and surprisingly insightful novel follows the junior year abroad of Jacqueline Bouvier, a few years before she became Jackie Kennedy… Mah, who clearly loves Paris and all the details of French living, affectionately and precisely captures life in the post–World War II city, with many deprivations but a spirit of hope. Her Jacqueline—bright, observant, and a little naïve—is an engaging and believable character, and it's easy to imagine how her experiences during this year shaped her future life…Staying within the consciousness of Jacqueline as she is at this point, Mah smoothly walks the line between biography and fiction. Fans of the former first lady and Paris should be beguiled.”

BOOKLIST: “Mah’s exemplary mix of literary and journalistic skills pays off in this extensively researched novel about the woman who became America’s most iconic and enigmatic first lady."

“In Jacqueline in Paris, Ann Mah brilliantly imagines what life was like in 1949 for a college student named Jacqueline Bouvier as she embarked on her junior year abroad. The alluring descriptions of postwar Paris (the food, the scenery) will make you want to hop on a plane, and the compelling storyline, set amid the rise of the Communist movement in France, is made even more thrilling by the fact that we know where this particular woman is headed.” ~Real Simple 

Buy link for Jacqueline in Paris

Monday, September 26, 2022

The Trouble with Characters

Mykhailo Dorokhov

: In addition to crime fiction, I enjoy smart women’s fiction. I bought a book recently from an author I like and started it eagerly. A chapter or two in, I was not enjoying the protagonist. She seemed pathetic in her life, with a recently deceased estranged mother, a dreadful boyfriend who had dumped her long after she should have cut him loose, and a work addiction. I persevered and the book got better. I realized that the way the character started out was an important beginning and launched an arc that allowed her to grow progressively open to love, and understanding of herself and others. But there must be a balance, because if a character is too unlikeable, who wants to read more?

I also realized that my own character Hayley Snow started out on the pathetic side. I’ve heard from a few reviewers and readers that they did not particularly like her at first, because she seemed self-absorbed and uncaring about dear friends. Over the course of 13 books, she’s improved, as my mother-in-law used to say about difficult grandchildren! And like the women’s fiction heroine, I think she needed to start low in order to have a place to grow. So that’s my question for the day, have you run into this in the books you’re writing, and definitely the books you’re reading? Is it a necessary part of a character's growth to start low? Are there books you’ve set aside completely because of this?

HALLIE EPHRON: One of the things I learned early on was to give my character room to grow. Either for things to get worse or better. If you start in the depths of despair you cut off your options. Constant pain makes a reader numb. And yes, I’ve put aside a book because I didn’t like the main character or found them annoying (too many tics, too snarky, not even a teeny bit nice…) But I love a character who’s snarky in interesting, revealing ways. It’s tricky.

RHYS BOWEN:  I have to like the character from the beginning. He or she doesn’t have to be perfect but I need to be rooting for them. I can’t tolerate whiny, self-absorbed characters!  But I do appreciate growth throughout a series. I think Molly Murphy has learned to control impulse behavior a little and Lady Georgie has definitely grown up a lot as the series has progressed.

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: I have to be interested in the main character from the beginning. What are they wanting, what are they doing to get it, what are the stakes? And it’s a different juggle in a series versus a standalone, because in a series–well, maybe you have a little more time. But re-thinking, no.  No matter what, you have to grab the reader.

So– I don’t mind snarky, if they have a goal. (Whiny victims are not my favorite–unless they see their problem, and work to change it.). A person with a plan, that’s what I love. No matter what it is. I think there has to be hope. And determination. And maybe a realization of foibles. Or an intrigue with the plan. Gah. Yeah.  I just have to be interested in them. 

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I agree with Hank - I’ll keep reading with “interesting.” I remember diving into Laura Lippman’s AND WHEN SHE WAS GOOD and being struck how her protagonist - a suburban madam with a LOT of sharp edges - became compelling through a combination of making it interesting (who doesn’t want to know how a high-end call girl operation works?) and by carefully revealing the character’s rough back story, which transformed her often unlikeable shell into armor against a world that had been cruel to her.

Another thing that will keep me reading when the character is a sad sack? Humor. The great example of this is Bridget Jones, who is completely down on herself and kind of hopeless - but who leaves you laughing on every page. I’ll stick around to see if you can do anything with your miserable life if you tickle my funny bone.

JENN McKINLAY: It’s all so subjective. I’ve had friends recommend books, assuring me that I would love the characters so much. I start to read and discover I loathe the characters and then I have to re-evaluate my friendship with that person. Like Julia, humor will win me over with a difficult character but it’s not necessary. I recently read Lessons in Chemistry (my fave book of 2022 thus far) and the main character was interesting and engaging but not particularly funny or charming. I have discovered that I am not a fan of the angry character. The jilted woman/man who spends the length of the story in a fury over how she/he was mistreated. Hard pass. 

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Characters don't necessarily have to be "nice." But I do have to like something about them, or to find their situation interesting enough that I want to like them. Humor will pull me in, and I do like to see an opportunity for growth. But not too whiny, or I won't have the patience to stick with them.  As Jenn says, it's all so subjective. I loved Eleanor Oliphant, for instance, who was certainly not likable, but there was something relatable that pulled me in.

How about you reading Reds, what's your take on lovable vs non-starter characters?

Sunday, September 25, 2022

The Hats!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: On Friday night, I finally finished watching the Queen's funeral. It was a busy week, but I had recorded the entire ten hour program on PBS, so I sneaked in bits as I could. The final service in St. George's Chapel was very moving, but I have to admit I was distracted by the hats!

I am a hat girl! I adore hats, and it really irks me that Americans aren't into millinery. I love visiting hat shops when I'm in the UK, and would be seriously tempted to carry hats home on the plane if I had any occasion to wear them.

So it was that I noticed the many fabulous hats worn by the women both at Westminster Abbey and St. George's Chapel. (Here's a nice piece from the Guardian.) But I kept wondering if there had been a huge run on hat shops. Did everyone have a suitable black hat on standby? Did milliners and dress shops and department stores keep back an appropriate selection? Who got first dibs?

And it seems that this was indeed an issue, with even the Queen's granddaughter Princess Beatrice forced to leave shops empty-handed. Dignitaries flying in for the services and assuming they could pick up a hat last minute in London must have had a panic! 

There were the broad-brimmed, the pillboxes, the feathered, the be-ribboned, the fascinators, the rakish. And the veils! 

REDs and readers, did you have a favorite? And what style would you choose to wear if you had the occasion?

P.S. I haven't forgotten that our Jenn has a new Hat Shop Mystery coming in January! I'd love to know what Scarlett and Viv thought of the finery on display!

JENN: Well, since you asked. I expect Viv and Scarlett would no doubt be thrilled by the last minute crush in business, despite being distraught over the death of the queen (Viv is a monarchist, you know, and not just because it's good for business). And given that upscale milliners can get a 600 pounds for a hat - it's not a bad industry to be in, if you're British.

P.S.S. Karen in Ohio, you are the winner of Michael Stanley's A DEADLY COVENANT! Email me your address!