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YA Book Review: The Unexpected Everything

Today’s post by Melissa Carpenter | @MelissaCarp

unexpected-everythingThe Unexpected Everything by Morgan Matson

One great YA title that might help us all hold fast to summer days is Morgan Matson’s The Unexpected Everything, a seriously cute and heartwarming novel that showcases everything there is to love about YA literature.

In it, Andie is a teenage girl with a very clear plan for her summer, for college, and for life in general. She’s the daughter of a politician, so her childhood has been lived under public scrutiny, and she strives for perfection. She hardly sees her dad, and since her mom passed away when she was young, she has basically raised herself. She’s fiercely independent and has very little relationship with her father, but somehow she’s satisfied with the way things are. She has her plans for the future, she has her friends, and she knows where she’s going.

But what will Andie do when a very public political scandal sends those plans sailing out the window? How will she deal with her lost summer internship? What will her unexpected summer be like when she had so many clear expectations that just won’t happen?

After she answers a help wanted ad that turns out to be for a dog walking service, all kinds of unexpected things pop up: a dad who’s suddenly in town a whole lot more than usual, a part time job without the prestige of a medical internship, a seriously great group of friends, a cute boy who keeps popping up, and so much more. What I love about The Unexpected Everything is that it’s fun and authentic (the text conversations, complete with emojis, are fantastic), but it still has strong themes of family and friendship and the power of change. We, along with Andie, get to see that sometimes beautiful things happen when life veers off the path we’ve decided it should stay on.

This novel is perfect for teenage girls and grown up women alike. Check it out, and enjoy!

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS and the forthcoming HINDENBURG (both published by Doubleday).

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A New Trend In Book Covers: The Rainy Window Pane

Today’s post by Ariel Lawhon

Several years ago we discovered a curious trend in book covers: the exploding rose. It was all the rage for a good six months and then, as is common with trends, quickly passed away. However, the rainy window pane has eagerly taken it’s place and has graced the covers of four recent novels. As you can see, they’re all dark and moody and suspenseful. We like it.


the-woman-in-cabin-10THE WOMAN IN CABIN 10 by Ruth Ware

From New York Times bestselling author of the “twisty-mystery” (Vulture) novel In a Dark, Dark Wood, comes The Woman in Cabin 10, an equally suspenseful and haunting novel from Ruth Ware—this time, set at sea.

In this tightly wound, enthralling story reminiscent of Agatha Christie’s works, Lo Blacklock, a journalist who writes for a travel magazine, has just been given the assignment of a lifetime: a week on a luxury cruise with only a handful of cabins. The sky is clear, the waters calm, and the veneered, select guests jovial as the exclusive cruise ship, the Aurora, begins her voyage in the picturesque North Sea. At first, Lo’s stay is nothing but pleasant: the cabins are plush, the dinner parties are sparkling, and the guests are elegant. But as the week wears on, frigid winds whip the deck, gray skies fall, and Lo witnesses what she can only describe as a dark and terrifying nightmare: a woman being thrown overboard. The problem? All passengers remain accounted for—and so, the ship sails on as if nothing has happened, despite Lo’s desperate attempts to convey that something (or someone) has gone terribly, terribly wrong…

With surprising twists, spine-tingling turns, and a setting that proves as uncomfortably claustrophobic as it is eerily beautiful, Ruth Ware offers up another taut and intense read in The Woman in Cabin 10—one that will leave even the most sure-footed reader restlessly uneasy long after the last page is turned.


the-forgetting-timeTHE FORGETTING TIME by Sharon Guskin

What happens to us after we die? What happens before we are born? At once a riveting mystery and a testament to the profound connection between a child and parent, The Forgetting Time will lead you to reevaluate everything you believe…

What would you do if your four-year-old son claimed he had lived another life and that he wants to go back to it? That he wants his other mother?

Single mom Janie is trying to figure out what is going on with her beloved son Noah. Noah has never been ordinary. He loves to make up stories, and he is constantly surprising her with random trivia someone his age has no right knowing. She always chalked it up to the fact that Noah was precocious―mature beyond his years. But Noah’s eccentricities are starting to become worrisome. One afternoon, Noah’s preschool teacher calls Janie: Noah has been talking about shooting guns and being held under water until he can’t breathe. Suddenly, Janie can’t pretend anymore. The school orders him to get a psychiatric evaluation. And life as she knows it stops for herself and her darling boy.

For Jerome Anderson, life as he knows it has already stopped. Diagnosed with aphasia, his first thought as he approaches the end of his life is, I’m not finished yet. Once an academic star, a graduate of Yale and Harvard, a professor of psychology, he threw everything away to pursue an obsession: the stories of children who remembered past lives. Anderson became the laughing stock of his peers, but he never stopped believing that there was something beyond what anyone could see or comprehend. He spent his life searching for a case that would finally prove it. And with Noah, he thinks he may have found it.

Soon, Noah, Janie, and Anderson will find themselves knocking on the door of a mother whose son has been missing for eight years. When that door opens, all of their questions will be answered.

Gorgeously written and fearlessly provocative, Sharon Guskin’s debut explores the lengths we will go for our children. It examines what we regret in the end of our lives and hope for in the beginning, and everything in between.


shelterSHELTER by Jung Yun

Kyung Cho is a young father burdened by a house he can’t afford. For years, he and his wife, Gillian, have lived beyond their means. Now their debts and bad decisions are catching up with them, and Kyung is anxious for his family’s future.

A few miles away, his parents, Jin and Mae, live in the town’s most exclusive neighborhood, surrounded by the material comforts that Kyung desires for his wife and son. Growing up, they gave him every possible advantage―private tutors, expensive hobbies―but they never showed him kindness. Kyung can hardly bear to see them now, much less ask for their help. Yet when an act of violence leaves Jin and Mae unable to live on their own, the dynamic suddenly changes, and he’s compelled to take them in. For the first time in years, the Chos find themselves living under the same roof. Tensions quickly mount as Kyung’s proximity to his parents forces old feelings of guilt and anger to the surface, along with a terrible and persistent question: how can he ever be a good husband, father, and son when he never knew affection as a child?

As Shelter veers swiftly toward its startling conclusion, Jung Yun leads us through dark and violent territory, where, unexpectedly, the Chos discover hope. Shelter is a masterfully crafted debut novel that asks what it means to provide for one’s family and, in answer, delivers a story as riveting as it is profound.


watching-edieWATCHING EDIE by Camilla Way

For fans of Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train: A dazzling work of psychological suspense that weaves together the past and present of two women’s twisted friendship.
Beautiful, creative, a little wild… Edie was the kind of girl who immediately caused a stir when she walked into your life. And she had dreams back then—but it didn’t take long for her to learn that things don’t always turn out the way you want them to.

Now, at thirty-three, Edie is working as a waitress, pregnant and alone. And when she becomes overwhelmed by the needs of her new baby and sinks into a bleak despair, she thinks that there’s no one to turn to…

But someone’s been watching Edie, waiting for the chance to prove once again what a perfect friend she can be. It’s no coincidence that Heather shows up on Edie’s doorstep, just when Edie needs her the most. So much has passed between them—so much envy, longing, and betrayal. And Edie’s about to learn a new lesson: those who have hurt us deeply—or who we have hurt—never let us go, not entirely…

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS and the forthcoming HINDENBURG (both published by Doubleday).

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A Word On Words, With Ariel Lawhon and J.T. Ellison

Today’s post by Ariel Lawhon

I recently had a blast filming an episode of Nashville Public Television’s “A Word on Words” with my good friend and fellow-writer, J.T. Ellison. Not only did we have a fabulous conversation about all things Hindenburg, but we filmed the show in a classic Beechcraft museum. All in all, a perfect day. So if you have three spare minutes today, you’re welcome to eavesdrop.

**Email readers can view the video here.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS and the forthcoming HINDENBURG (both published by Doubleday).

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Three Reasons To Take A Social Media Break

Today’s post is by Ariel Lawhon, She Reads co-founder, and author of the critically acclaimed novels, THE WIFE, THE MAID, AND THE MISTRESS and FLIGHT OF DREAMS.


There’s a good chance you’re reading this because of a link you saw on social media. But here’s what you need to know: I didn’t post it there. As of this morning I am officially on an extended social media break. My husband has changed all of my passwords with strict instructions not to tell me what they are until I finish my current novel (he’s Texan, so there’s no way he’ll cave) and I’ve deleted all social media apps from my phone, including Pinterest and Words with Friends. It’s a pretty extreme thing to do, I know. But I am convinced that there are seasons in life where the best things we can do for our personal and professional lives is to walk away from the distraction of social media. And my guess is you’ve thought of doing the same. So, today I’m offering three reasons why you might want to join me in this radical experiment. All three apply to me at the moment and I’d wager you can relate to one or more yourself.


You Need To Focus On That Big Project.

I’m in the homestretch with a new novel and I won’t finish on time unless I am ruthless about eliminating distractions from my life. The book is called I WAS ANASTASIA and is about the last days of Anastasia Romanov and the woman believed to be her most famous imposter. It explores the long-standing mystery of whether or not the young, Russian Grand Duchess survived the massacre that killed her family and is…well…something of a beast to write. To do this story justice I have to be fully present. I have to, as Dr. Cal Newport says, do deep work. At the moment there is nothing social media can provide that will replace time spent with my manuscript and in my research material.

Do you have a big project that needs to get finished? Maybe you’re also writing a book. But maybe you’re remodeling your kitchen or rebuilding a car engine with your teenage son. If you have a big, glaring project on your to-do list that just doesn’t ever seem to get finished, then perhaps it’s time to take a social media break.


You Need To Focus On Your People.

Speaking of teenage sons, I have one of those as well. I also have a pre-teen and two elementary age boys. And while none of them are driving yet, all of them are playing baseball at the moment. And it’s amazing! It’s also time consuming and a lot to keep up with. Four boys. Four teams. Each with two games every week and, well, I have to be on my A-game to keep everything straight. But it’s not just the schedule. Lately I’ve found myself on the stands watching a ballgame on a beautiful evening. And what am I doing? Looking around to see if there’s anything interesting I can Instagram. I’m embarrassed that I’ve become that person. My children need me to be present and accounted for because in a few years there won’t be any more baseball games or choir concerts or awards ceremonies to photograph. I don’t want to miss them while trying to record them.

Do you have people in your life that you need to focus on? Maybe it’s a friend who’s going through a rough patch. Or your spouse is in the middle of a tough work transition. Or your children are struggling in school. Maybe your relationships are in a good place right now and you simply want to enjoy them. If you’ve been thinking that your people need more of you these days, then perhaps it’s time to take a social media break.


You Need To Focus On Your Heart.

Sometimes it’s all a bit too much. And social media gives us a million reasons every day to feel discontent, jealousy, isolation, anger, frustration, comparison, and any number of other blood-pressure-raising emotions. Sure, there are plenty of good things about it. But there are also seasons in life when the bad things outweigh the good things and our poor, battered hearts could really use a rest. We could use a bit of curated silence. We could use some time with the real people in our real lives. We could use a break from the Twitter/Facebook fight du jour.

Do you find that you can’t log on to social media these days without flinching first? If you type in your password and automatically wonder who is hurling abuse, or who is sticking their foot in their mouth, or who is getting publicly shamed today, then perhaps it’s time to take a social media break.

Really, I suppose, the point of this exercise is simply to focus. To focus on the things that matter. Your work matters. Your people matter. Your heart matters. Social media? Not so much.

Here’s the Ted Talk that convinced me to step away from the “social media slot machine” and engage in some really deep work for the remainder of this year. If you decide to join me, leave a comment below.





Interested in this subject? Read DEEP WORK by Cal Newport

deep-workOne of the most valuable skills in our economy is becoming increasingly rare. If you master this skill, you’ll achieve extraordinary results.
Deep work is the ability to focus without distraction on a cognitively demanding task. It’s a skill that allows you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. Deep work will make you better at what you do and provide the sense of true fulfillment that comes from craftsmanship. In short, deep work is like a super power in our increasingly competitive twenty-first century economy. And yet, most people have lost the ability to go deep-spending their days instead in a frantic blur of e-mail and social media, not even realizing there’s a better way.

In DEEP WORK, author and professor Cal Newport flips the narrative on impact in a connected age. Instead of arguing distraction is bad, he instead celebrates the power of its opposite. Dividing this book into two parts, he first makes the case that in almost any profession, cultivating a deep work ethic will produce massive benefits. He then presents a rigorous training regimen, presented as a series of four “rules,” for transforming your mind and habits to support this skill.

A mix of cultural criticism and actionable advice, DEEP WORK takes the reader on a journey through memorable stories — from Carl Jung building a stone tower in the woods to focus his mind, to a social media pioneer buying a round-trip business class ticket to Tokyo to write a book free from distraction in the air — and no-nonsense advice, such as the claim that most serious professionals should quit social media and that you should practice being bored. DEEP WORK is an indispensable guide to anyone seeking focused success in a distracted world.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS and the forthcoming HINDENBURG (both published by Doubleday).

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Making the Leap from Contemporary to Historical Fiction

Today’s post by Juliette Fay | @JulietteFay

We’re thrilled to have Juliette Fay on the blog today as she shares a bit about her new novel, THE TUMBLING TURNER SISTERS, and how she navigated the departure from contemporary fiction to historical fiction. Welcome, Juliette! And add this one to your lists, friends. I think you’ll love it.

juliette-fayIn the past, just as I’d finish one novel, there was always another idea out there simmering, waiting for me to bring it to a full boil. That didn’t happen after my last book, and it was really starting to get to me. I had a lot of “first dates” with story ideas, but no seconds.

One day my father came over for lunch, and in an effort to help, he started listing things he thought I should write about. These included a book on President Lincoln — and I’m thinking Yeah, because that’s never been done before. No competition whatsoever – or on Oliver Cromwell’s violent domination of Ireland, which basically started out as a tragic bloodbath and went downhill from there.

As he talked about how his own ancestors had fled the Irish famine and English repression, I suddenly remembered a picture he’d sent me of his grandfather dancing onstage, along with newspaper clippings about his vaudeville career in the early 1900s. Vaudeville! Sitting there over the remains of our lunch, my head was suddenly exploding with ideas.

I’ve always loved reading historical fiction, but shied away from writing it because I didn’t think I had the background. Don’t you need some sort of history degree to write about a completely different time? It turns out the answer is no. As with any story about a complicated topic, you just have to be willing to submerge yourself in the subject matter and learn everything you can.

The research for The Tumbling Turner Sisters turned out to be a surprising amount of fun. The world was changing quickly in 1919; World War I had just ended, and Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage were looming on the horizon. People were forced to take a critical look at the status quo and question if there weren’t better ways. With women’s rights headline news and sexual politics evolving, I knew the main characters had to be young women struggling to figure out where they fit in.

Amid of all the social and political turmoil, the subculture of vaudeville was this crazy little brother-and-sisterhood, with its own customs, rules and slang. It was fascinating to learn how much of American entertainment—especially humor—has its roots deep in the rich vaudeville soil. So many of the greats went on to have long and iconic careers in radio, TV and movies, people like Groucho Marx, Judy Garland, Sammy Davis Jr., Cary Grant, Mae West, WC Fields, Bill Bojangles Robinson, George Burns and Gracie Allen.

I still don’t have a history degree, but I now know an awful lot about vaudeville in 1919, thanks to my great-grandfather, a man I unfortunately never met. In gratitude, I gave one of the characters his name. I like to think it would appeal to the entertainer in him to be back in the spotlight again a hundred years after his prime.


tumbling-turner-sistersFor fans of Orphan Train and Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, a compelling historical novel from “one of the best authors of women’s fiction” (Library Journal). Set against the turbulent backdrop of American Vaudeville, four sisters embark on an unexpected adventure—and a last-ditch effort to save their family.

In 1919, the Turner sisters and their parents are barely scraping by. Their father is a low-paid boot-stitcher in Johnson City, New York, and the family is always one paycheck away from eviction. When their father’s hand is crushed and he can no longer work, their irrepressible mother decides that the vaudeville stage is their best—and only—chance for survival.

Traveling by train from town to town, teenagers Gert, Winnie, and Kit, and recent widow Nell soon find a new kind of freedom in the company of performers who are as diverse as their acts. There is a seamier side to the business, however, and the young women face dangers and turns of fate they never could have anticipated. Heartwarming and surprising, The Tumbling Turner Sisters is ultimately a story of awakening—to unexpected possibilities, to love and heartbreak, and to the dawn of a new American era.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS and the forthcoming HINDENBURG (both published by Doubleday).

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Run The Downhill Parts

Today’s post by Ariel Lawhon | @ArielLawhon


I used to be a runner. And I used to love it. It worked for me. My body responded well to the routine and consistency and when I think back, I’ve never been healthier than when I was was running thirty-plus miles a week. Life changes of course. Mine certainly did. I got married and had children and my days soon filled with other things: namely a desperate need for sleep.

Sixteen years later I’ve started running again. When the kids went back to school in August I started hitting the pavement in the mornings. And while I’ve been pleased to learn that I still love running, it’s discouraging to realize just how out of shape I truly am. I’m slower than I’ve ever been. My aerobic stamina is pathetic. My body is older and stiffer and less inclined to cooperate. I blister easily. But I am running. And this makes me very happy.

But because I live in Tennessee there is another obstacle in my path: hills. Many, many hills, all of them seemingly in my neighborhood. It’s hard enough to run a mile on flat ground without getting red-faced and winded. But it’s even worse when hills are involved. So, a few weeks ago I made a decision: until I build up speed and stamina I am just going to run the downhill parts.

And it’s working! I’ve stopped dreading my runs. My speed is increasing. My time is decreasing. It still isn’t all that pretty, but it is progress. Allowing myself to take the easy route has allowed me to establish this new habit. And I’m healthier as a result. My clothes fit better. My circulation and skin are better. I feel better.

It’s been a revelation to me: I don’t have to make things hard on my myself. I don’t have to run up the hills. They aren’t going anywhere. I have to climb them anyway. But I don’t have to do it in a way that will hurt or exhaust  me.

So, today, here’s your homework:

Run the downhill parts.

Pick the low-hanging fruit.

Write the easy chapter.

Make the easy sales call.

Let yourself see a bit of progress.

Of course we can do all the hard things. And we will. But sometimes we need permission to do the easy things first. Save that uphill run for later.

For now, take the win.


A few things that are helping me form this new habit:

A fun playlist. Mine includes everything from Survivor’s Eye of the Tiger (Yes, I’m serious. Yes I love Rocky. And yes it really does help me keep the pace up—you try not running when it’s playing) to Thunderstruck by AC/DC. It also has Pink, Beyonce, Aloe Blac, Ram Jam, Hozier, Taio Cruz, and Andy Grammer. It’s all over the map but if I’m going to run to it, I want upbeat. I want it to make me happy.

The Map My Run app. It keeps track of time, distance, and calories. I can map specific runs through my neighborhood and share them with my husband so he knows where I am. It tracks my progress weekly and emails me a gentle reminder if I’ve skipped too many days. I like the accountability.

The realization that I write better if I’ve gone for a run that morning. Even on the days when I don’t really have time. Even on the days when I don’t feel like it. I write twice as many words on the days that I run. Every. Single. Time.


Reading Suggestion:

runningJen Miller has fallen in and out of love, but no man has been there for her the way running has.

In Running: A Love Story, Jen tells the story of her lifelong relationship with running with wit, thoughtfulness, and brutal honesty. Jen first laces up her sneakers in high school, when, like many people, she sees running as a painful part of conditioning for other sports. But when she discovers early in her career as a journalist that it helps her clear her mind, focus her efforts, and achieve new goals, she becomes hooked for good.

Jen, a middle-of-the-pack but tenacious runner, hones her skill while navigating relationships with men that, like a tricky marathon route, have their ups and downs, relying on running to keep her steady in the hard times. As Jen pushes herself toward ever-greater challenges, she finds that running helps her walk away from the wrong men and learn to love herself while revealing focus, discipline, and confidence she didn’t realize she had.

Relatable, inspiring, and brutally honest, Running: A Love Story, explores the many ways that distance running carves a path to inner peace and empowerment by charting one woman’s evolution in the sport.

About Ariel Lawhon

Ariel Lawhon is co-founder of She Reads, a novelist, blogger, and life-long reader. She lives in the rolling hills outside Nashville, Tennessee, with her husband and four young sons (aka The Wild Rumpus). She is the author of THE WIFE THE MAID AND THE MISTRESS and the forthcoming HINDENBURG (both published by Doubleday).

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Book, Meet Book

Today we’ve got two delightfully delicious books who just have to meet– so for all you foodie fiction lovers, read on.


city-bakerThe City Baker’s Guide to Country Living by Louise Miller

When Olivia Rawlings—pastry chef extraordinaire for an exclusive Boston dinner club—sets not just her flambéed dessert but the entire building alight, she escapes to the most comforting place she can think of—the idyllic town of Guthrie, Vermont, home of Bag Balm, the country’s longest-running contra dance, and her best friend Hannah. But the getaway turns into something more lasting when Margaret Hurley, the cantankerous, sweater-set-wearing owner of the Sugar Maple Inn, offers Livvy a job. Broke and knowing that her days at the club are numbered, Livvy accepts.

Livvy moves with her larger-than-life, uberenthusiastic dog, Salty, into a sugarhouse on the inn’s property and begins creating her mouthwatering desserts for the residents of Guthrie. She soon uncovers the real reason she has been hired—to help Margaret reclaim the inn’s blue ribbon status at the annual county fair apple pie contest.

With the joys of a fragrant kitchen, the sound of banjos and fiddles being tuned in a barn, and the crisp scent of the orchard just outside the front door, Livvy soon finds herself immersed in small town life. And when she meets Martin McCracken, the Guthrie native who has returned from Seattle to tend his ailing father, Livvy comes to understand that she may not be as alone in this world as she once thought.

But then another new arrival takes the community by surprise, and Livvy must decide whether to do what she does best and flee—or stay and finally discover what it means to belong. Olivia Rawlings may finally find out that the life you want may not be the one you expected—it could be even better.


secret-ingredientThe Secret Ingredient of Wishes by Susan Bishop Crispell

26-year-old Rachel Monroe has spent her whole life trying to keep a very unusual secret: she can make wishes come true. And sometimes the consequences are disastrous. So when Rachel accidentally grants an outlandish wish for the first time in years, she decides it’s time to leave her hometown―and her past―behind for good.

Rachel isn’t on the road long before she runs out of gas in a town that’s not on her map: Nowhere, North Carolina―also known as the town of “Lost and Found.” In Nowhere, Rachel is taken in by a spit-fire old woman, Catch, who possesses a strange gift of her own: she can bind secrets by baking them into pies. Rachel also meets Catch’s neighbor, Ashe, a Southern gentleman with a complicated past, who makes her want to believe in happily-ever-after for the first time in her life.

As she settles into the small town, Rachel hopes her own secrets will stay hidden, but wishes start piling up everywhere Rachel goes. When the consequences threaten to ruin everything she’s begun to build in Nowhere, Rachel must come to terms with who she is and what she can do, or risk losing the people she’s starting to love―and her chance at happiness―all over again.

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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4 Novels I Read As A Child That Are Still Informing My Writing Today

Today’s post by Marybeth Whalen | @MarybethWhalen

Many of these novels were read to me by my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Diebold. (Teachers, never discount the lasting impact you can have on a child.) And as I think about why I loved these novels—and how much I loved them—I see their impact on me even still, in my decision to become a writer, and in the writing itself.

In no particular order they are as follows (summary followed by my thoughts):


mandyMandy by Julie Andrews Edwards

Mandy, a ten-year-old orphan, dreams of a place to call her own. Escaping over the orphanage wall to explore the outside world, Mandy discovers a tiny deserted cottage in the woods. All through the spring, summer, and fall, Mandy works to make it truly hers. Sometimes she “borrows” things she needs from the orphanage. Sometimes, to guard her secret, she even lies. Then, one stormy night at the cottage, Mandy gets sick, and no one knows how to find her—except a special friend she didn’t know she had.

I can’t help but think of my character Cailey from THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE as I read this short summary. She too is looking for a home, a place to belong. She too has gotten a bad deal in life, but has pluck and gumption, which helps her navigate life.


harriet-the-spyHarriet The Spy by Louise Fitzhugh

Harriet M. Welsch is a spy. In her notebook, she writes down everything she knows about everyone, even her classmates and her best friends. Then Harriet loses track of her notebook, and it ends up in the wrong hands. Before she can stop them, her friends have read the always truthful, sometimes awful things she’s written about each of them. Will Harriet find a way to put her life and her friendships back together?

Harriet made me realize I wasn’t the only one who was nosy curious. I wasn’t the only one who carried a notebook everywhere I went and recorded the life happening around me, from the significant to the mundane. Harriet made me feel normal.


dannyDanny The Champion of the World by Roald Dahl

Danny has a life any boy would love—his home is a gypsy caravan, he’s the youngest master car mechanic around, and his best friend is his dad, who never runs out of wonderful stories to tell. But one night Danny discovers a shocking secret that his father has kept hidden for years. Soon Danny finds himself the mastermind behind the most incredible plot ever attempted against nasty Victor Hazell, a wealthy landowner with a bad attitude. Can they pull it off? If so, Danny will truly be the champion of the world.

I like to write about quirky characters who live on the fringe, who don’t quite fit for whatever reason. Danny is such a character, and an unlikely hero to boot. In the original draft of THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE, there was a character known only as “The Watcher,” who lived on the fringe and who became an unlikely hero. Though he ended up on the cutting room floor, I know he lives in Sycamore Glen, the fictional neighborhood I created. It is enough just for me to know.


north-to-freedomNorth To Freedom by Anne Holm

David’s entire twelve-year life has been spent in a grisly prison camp in Eastern Europe. He knows nothing of the outside world. But when he is given the chance to escape, he seizes it. With his vengeful enemies hot on his heels, David struggles to cope in this strange new world, where his only resources are a compass, a few crusts of bread, his two aching feet, and some vague advice to seek refuge in Denmark. Is that enough to survive?

David’s extraordinary odyssey is dramatically chronicled in Anne Holm’s classic about the meaning of freedom and the power of hope.

This book features yet another child enduring hard things and emerging on the other end, changed, yet victorious. I like strong kids. Because I think we all have a strong child still inside of us, reminding us who we once were, urging us to always be working at being better.

 Do you have favorite books from your childhood that, in thinking about it, you see informing you today either in your family or your career—or both? Share them with us today!

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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Today’s post by Ella Joy Olsen and Marybeth Whalen | @EllaJoyOlsen and @MarybethWhalen

We’re thrilled to be back with part two of our interview between Marybeth Whalen and Ella Joy Olsen today. If you missed part one you can read it here.


Marybeth: Adam’s death is a crushing loss to Ivy. Is there an image or motif in the book that you would say symbolizes or especially communicates the impact of that loss? Did you intend that when you began the story or did it emerge?

Ella: This is a tricky question for me. While the enormity of Ivy’s sorrow at the sudden loss of her husband is justified, I consider Root, Petal, Thorn more a book about healing and moving beyond her overwhelming grief. So while she’s crushed, she doesn’t stay there for the whole of the novel.

Motif…let’s see…working on their fixer-upper bungalow together is a shared passion for Ivy and Adam. But after his death she can’t bear to continue remodeling without him by her side. However, she knows she must be strong for her two children, and that means finishing up and putting away the tools.

While getting her house in order, Ivy begins to uncover a variety clues from past occupants, from buried wine bottles to a half-finished embroidery sampler. It seems her home has a tale to tell. As she learns the stories of four other women who called her house a home, their stories of love and loss help Ivy accept she can go on without Adam. She’ll always remember him, but despite loss, she will survive. So I guess the motif of this sentiment is the home, itself. It’s a place with a deep past. One full of sorrow and joy.

Marybeth: Which came first for you– the house and all its history or the main character and all her pain?

Ella: This is an easy one. The house and history! I live in a hundred year old bungalow and throughout the years my husband and I have spent crazy time and money fixing it up, making it ours. While we worked we would find amazing things past owners had (purposefully or inadvertently) left behind. I won’t list them all here, but many of our discoveries made it into the novel.

Though I’ve researched, I’ll never know exactly who walked across my same wood floors or looked out the same windows, but I love to imagine. So, when my youngest started school full-time, I decided to put pen to paper and write about the characters who’d taken up residence in my mind. And Root, Petal, Thorn was born.

With that said, I started this novel shortly after my sister died in a boating accident (she was overcome by Carbon Monoxide while swimming). Ivy’s story absolutely reflects my personal grieving process.

Marybeth: You’ve said that you drew inspiration from your own neighborhood. My neighborhood was also a huge inspiration for my novel. Can you give us some specific ways your neighborhood inspired you?

Ella: Of course! Root, Petal, Thorn is set in Sugar House, a community originally founded by Brigham Young (the prophet of the LDS church) to grow sugar beets and process them into refined sugar. Though the sugar was a failed experiment, the business center and neighborhood endured, so my neighborhood is one of the oldest in the valley. I love the history of my town, so it was a treat to research facts from all different time periods. I studied old photos, fact-checked my narrative, and read a bunch of non-fiction books.

I also drew from the current day awesomeness of my neighborhood. There is a sense of community in Sugar House. People are out on their porches, they ride their bikes to the local grocery, the library is over-run with children, and enormous trees canopy every street. It’s a great place to live.

Marybeth: You present a balanced portrayal of Salt Lake City, acknowledging its Mormon roots but showing that there is more to the place than that. Was that your intent or did it just happen?

Ella: The novel is based in my hometown, and for better or worse, the LDS faith is a part of our state’s past and present. To write an accurate novel based in Salt Lake City, the story must be touched by the church. Not to mention, my own ancestry is tightly entwined with church history and Mormon migration west. With that said, I’m not Mormon. I consider the history of the state and the modern-day believers an asset to my community, so it was very easy to write a balanced portrayal. The tone of the novel was likely organic. I had no religious agenda when I began.

Marybeth: One of your characters has bipolar disorder. How much research did you have to do? How did you put yourself in her shoes and write her from a place of total empathy?

Ella: Oh, I’m glad you feel Lainey was written from a place of empathy! Lainey was the last historic character I wrote. I could see her in my mind, and I knew I wanted her challenges to be more internal rather than foist upon her by world events (like several of the other historic characters). Initially, she was in an abusive relationship, but I found I was spending too much time with her awful husband. I’ve had several bouts of depression, personally, and just those weeks when I felt I’d never be happy again, made me want to write an account of invisible internal struggle.

Also, I have a sister-in-law who’s dealt with bipolar for most of her adult life and I’ve witnessed the effects. She was incredibly kind to share some of her trials. Along with her first-person account, I read a couple of memoirs for a broader perspective. Lainey was the hardest character to write, but many have said she’s their favorite.

Marybeth: And most of all have you ever renovated a home? If so how is it similar to creating a novel??

Ella: As I mentioned above, I live in a historic home. Historic is a lovely word for: this place was lived in for one hundred long years. Any dwelling that stands for a century has felt some serious wear and tear, so I have without question, done my fair share of renovating.

Some changes were huge: plumbing, new kitchen. Some small: paint, new flooring. But each required removing layers of “improvements” made by past occupants, you see, our home isn’t your typical old-granny home where one person lived in it, collecting gorgeous patina year by year. It was a home loved across the decades, and a home that’s loved, is a home that’s continually changed. In our case, someone tore out all of our old woodwork (including the floor boards), dug out the basement, lowered the ceilings, ripped out the hearth and replaced it with Pepto-Bismol pink tile. To get to the lovely bones of the house, our renovation process was like stripping away layers of time and trend.

In this way, I’d say editing a novel is like remodeling. You start with a rough draft and peel back the layers of drivel you’ve just written to get to the core of the thing, the truth of the story. After you glimpse it, you realize there’s potential, but it’s pretty shabby. You take a hammer to it, some sandpaper, and fresh paint. It’s a long and difficult process. Some of the changes you make you’ll have to rip out again and not everyone will like the paint color you choose. But someday, maybe years later, you’ll be ready to invite friends over for dinner.


root-petal-thornIn this beautifully written and powerful debut novel, Ella Joy Olsen traces the stories of five fascinating women who inhabit the same  historic home over the course of a century—braided stories of love, heartbreak and courage connect the women, even across generations.

Ivy Baygren has two great loves in her life: her husband, Adam, and the bungalow they buy together in one of the oldest neighborhoods in Salt Lake City, Utah. From the moment she and Adam lay eyes on the  home, Ivy is captivated by its quaint details—the old porch swing, ornate tiles, and especially  an heirloom rose bush bursting with snowy white blossoms.  Called the Emmeline Rose for the home’s original owner, it seems yet another sign that this place will be Ivy’s happily-ever-after…Until her dreams are shattered by Adam’s unexpected death.

Striving to be strong for her two children, Ivy decides to tackle the home-improvement projects she and Adam once planned. Day by day, as she attempts to rebuild her house and her resolve, she uncovers clues about previous inhabitants, from a half-embroidered sampler to buried wine bottles. And as Ivy learns about the women who came before her—the young Mormon torn between her heart and anti-polygamist beliefs, the Greek immigrant during World War II, a troubled single mother in the 1960s—she begins to uncover the lessons of her own journey. For every story has its sadness, but there is also the possibility of blooming again, even stronger and more resilient than before…

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

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Author to Author: Ella Joy Olsen and Marybeth Whalen

Today’s post by Ella Joy Olsen and Marybeth Whalen | @EllaJoyOlsen and @MarybethWhalen

We’re delighted to feature our own Marybeth Whalen, along with Ella Joy Olsen, as they discuss their new books on the blog today. We’ll be back with part two of this author-to-author interview on Monday. And if you’ve not yet had a chance to read Marybeth’s novel, THE THINGS WE WISH WERE TRUE, now would be the perfect time. Yes, we’re biased (*wink*) but yes, it’s also really that good.


ELLA: As I was reading The Things We Wish Were True, I quickly became aware of deeper currents under a placid surface. Case in point, you seamlessly juxtaposed the festive atmosphere of a neighborhood swimming pool in the heat of a small-town summer with a near-drowning. Many seemingly idyllic scenes added to the ongoing tension. Was this sense of foreboding your intent? Did you know you were writing a thriller when you put pen to paper? Or did you have to turn-up the suspense in second or third drafts?

MARYBETH: It’s funny because I still don’t consider it a thriller! I would call it women’s fiction with an element of suspense. And yes, I liked creating this idyllic setting while weaving in these “all is not perfect” elements– just to put the reader on edge and point towards what is to come. I’ve taken some flak for the 4th of July scene being a little rough but that scene is in there for a purpose– to show that, while this neighborhood seems peaceful and sweet, there are some undesirable things going on.

ELLA: I loved the scenes at the pool: juice boxes warmed in the sun, the heat of concrete through a wet swimsuit. These details resonate with my own childhood and with the hours spent at swim lessons when my children were little. I’m always interested in a writer’s process. Did you grow up in a tight-knit town? And did you visit a local pool to collect some the most visceral details? Let’s talk inspiration.

MARYBETH: I actually live in a neighborhood I spent a lot of time in as a kid. We’ve lived here 16 years and we’re at the pool a lot so those details weren’t hard to come by! I grew up in a suburb of Charlotte NC and never left. So I understand the ins and outs of small town life and the pull that home has on you– whether you like it or not!

ELLA: This story is told through six voices: Cailey, Zell, Bryte, Jencey, Lance, and Everett. Cailey’s was the only voice written in first person. Would you consider her the main character or the character closest to your heart? What was the first voice that came to you? Which character was the hardest to write?

MARYBETH: I get the question about Cailey being the only one in first person a lot. And the only answer I have is I just wrote her the way I heard her in my head. She told me her story, and I wrote it down. (And yes, it freaks my husband and children out to know that I hear from people who aren’t really there. But they’re quite real to me!)  And yes, she was nearest and dearest to my heart and I think that is reflected (perhaps unfairly– sorry, other characters) in the story. As for hardest to write, I think just making sure Bryte and Jencey were distinct characters was my biggest challenge. They were from similar backgrounds, both moms, of similar ages, etc. and I didn’t want them to be interchangeable. I had to work at that.

ELLA: The novel is full of twists and turns. Some I saw coming (effective foreshadowing), but many I didn’t anticipate, at all. Did you plan these plot twists before you wrote, or did they come to you as you explored your characters? Are you a Pantser or Plotter? Can you speak again to process?

MARYBETH: I did plan the plot twists. The fun part about this book was I was able to take several story lines I’d been thinking about for a long time and sort of just throw them all into one story. So some of the things that happen were things I’d been wanting to do in a story for quite a while. I definitely plot my books– but also enjoy the fun of the little surprises that happen along the way too– the things the characters have up their sleeves that I do not know when I sit down to write.

ELLA: If I were to pull a theme from this book, in my perspective, it would be innocence lost, but also new beginnings. Maybe a comprehensive word for both concepts would be redemption. If you were to give this novel a big picture meaning, what would it be? And why?

MARYBETH: You hit the nail on the head when you said redemption– all of my stories have to have that or I can’t write them. I live in the real world and I write about real world stuff. The good, the bad and the ugly. But I also believe in hope above all. If you read the author’s note at the end of the book, I explain the hope in this particular story.

ELLA: I think the entire novel harkened me back to youthful relationships. I was intrigued by best friends Bryte and Jencey and the first love between Jencey/Bryte and Everett. I think childhood loves and friendships can crush a person more fully than those forged in adulthood. Why is this, do you think? And if this question doesn’t hit too close to home, did you draw these emotional details from personal experience?

MARYBETH: The old saying, “You never get over your first love” makes for a nice theme to explore in a story. With this one, a long time ago I heard about a girl I used to know who went on to marry a boy who was very popular in high school, but she wasn’t. And I always wondered about that– how she felt to be married to someone who was out of her league when they were young. And how that informed the marriage dynamic as adults. So I just wanted to play with that. Like I said, in this story I was able to dig into several things I’ve thought about for quite awhile. As my husband will attest to, I’m always thinking!


TTWWWTIn an idyllic small-town neighborhood, a near tragedy triggers a series of dark revelations.

From the outside, Sycamore Glen, North Carolina, might look like the perfect all-American neighborhood. But behind the white picket fences lies a web of secrets that reach from house to house.

Up and down the streets, neighbors quietly bear the weight of their own pasts—until an accident at the community pool upsets the delicate equilibrium. And when tragic circumstances compel a woman to return to Sycamore Glen after years of self-imposed banishment, the tangle of the neighbors’ intertwined lives begins to unravel.

During the course of a sweltering summer, long-buried secrets are revealed, and the neighbors learn that it’s impossible to really know those closest to us. But is it impossible to love and forgive them?

About Marybeth Whalen

Marybeth Whalen is the co-founder of She Reads, mother of six, and life-long reader. She is also the author of two novels with a third out in July: The Mailbox, She Makes It Look Easy, and The Guest Book.

read more