Book chat: ‘The Hopefuls’ by Jennifer Close

the-hopefulsBeth can’t say she entered into her marriage with Matt ignorant of his political aspirations. But when her husband relocates them to Washington, D.C., as part of his work for President Obama, the tedious, seedy and, yes, often dull side of politics takes over her day-to-day life.

A friendship with Ash, a Texan also in the city due to her husband’s presidential connections, adds levity and companionship to Beth’s life — but Ash’s husband, Jimmy, has political goals of his own. When Matt and Jimmy become entangled in “turning Texas blue” as part of Jimmy’s campaign to earn a spot in local government, jealousy and indignation threaten to derail more than just their friendship.

Jennifer Close’s The Hopefuls caught my eye because, hello, I adore the cover. I’m also a Marylander who lives within breathing distance of Washington and am always swept up in politics, both local and national, and I’ll admit to being a bit wistful regarding the halcyon days of the Obama Administration. The story opens at the start of his first term, and it was actually bittersweet — especially given the current state of affairs — to think about how different life was then.

The Hopefuls had my attention early, gaining good ground even with the constant digs against D.C. (yes, it’s hot and humid; yes, everyone here talks about their job as a way of gaining status), but my enthusiasm for the story flagged by the time Matt and Beth departed for Texas to help with a weirdly unattainable political campaign put on by Jimmy.

Told from Beth’s first-person perspective, I expected … more of Beth in this story? As it stands, she’s merely an observer — and not a terribly interesting one at that. Though we’re told she’s a writer, she spends her time in Texas complaining and wandering around the house she and Matt now share with Jimmy and Ash, “helping” with the campaign here and there but ultimately doing nothing but seething with rage as Matt comes increasingly distant.

There was so much potential in a subplot regarding whether Beth actually wants to have the child she knows her husband longs for, especially as all of their coupled friends start families … but it never really goes anywhere, at least not in a satisfying way. Beth has an opportunity to look inward regarding the source of her anger as her closest girlfriends become mothers, but the novel just stays on-the-surface throughout. That disappointed me.

I enjoyed Close’s examination of adult friendships and liked brash Ash (hey, that rhymes), but her dynamic with husband Jimmy was pretty sad — and Matt and Beth’s marriage ultimately flounders, too. As a look at how changing priorities can impact — and damage — relationships as marriages mature, I think The Hopefuls works. But it’s just a little depressing, too.

3 out of 5

Pub: 2016 • GoodreadsAmazonAuthor Website
Review copy provided by publisher in exchange for review consideration


Reading fools for the Indie Lit Awards

If you’re looking for me over the next few weeks, I’ll give you a major clue as to where I’ll be: with my face pressed down into one of five heavy books, making my way through the delicious words of Nicole Krauss, Helen Simonson, Emma Donoghue, Tom McCarthy and Peter Geye.

Yes, friends, it’s time of the inaugural Indie Lit Awards — and I’m sittin’ pretty as one of the judges on the literary fiction panel. As such, I’m spending an inordinate amount of time with five books and working with an awesome crew of folks to determine a winner. And that’ll be a surprise to all of us.

Check out the novels culled from nominations made by independent lit book bloggers (maybe yourself?), and feel free to read along with us. Panelists are all busy reading now, and winners in each category will be announced in February. Look for my personal reviews in coming weeks!

2010 Short List for Literary Fiction

C by Tom McCarthy
Great House by Nicole Krauss
Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Room by Emma Donoghue
Safe from the Sea by Peter Geye

2010 Shortlist for GLBTQ

Annabel by Kathleen Winter
Jumpstart the World by Catherine Ryan Hyde
Krakow Melt by Daniel Allen Cox
Will Grayson, Will Grayson by David Levithan and John Green
Scars by Cheryl Rainfield

2010 Short List for Non-Fiction

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Cleopatra: A Life by Stacy Schiff
At Home by Bill Bryson

2010 Shortlist for Speculative Fiction

Monsters of Men by Patrick Ness
Kraken by China Mieville
Dante’s Journey by JC Marino
How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe by Charles Yu
The Passage by Justin Cronin

What I read in 2010: The completed list

1. The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly
2. French Milk by Lucy Knisley
3. Saving CeeCee Honeycutt by Beth Hoffman
4. Breakfast In Bed by Robin Kaye
5. The Day The Falls Stood Still by Cathy Marie Buchanan
6. The Smart One and the Pretty One by Claire LaZebnik
7. Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy: The Last Man In The World by Abigail Reynolds
8. The Sweetheart Of Prosper County by Jill S. Alexander
9. Fat Cat by Robin Brande
10. Blankets by Craig Thompson
11. Austenland by Shannon Hale
12. A Match Made In High School by Kristin Walker
13. When She Flew by Jennie Shortridge
14. Walking In Circles Before Lying Down by Merrill Markoe
15. The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek
16. Boys, Bears, And A Serious Pair Of Hiking Boots by Abby McDonald
17. The Cougar Club by Susan McBride
18. The Lonely Hearts Club by Elizabeth Eulberg
19. Almost Home by Pam Jenoff
20. The Next Thing On My List by Jill Smolinski
21. Raven Stole The Moon by Garth Stein
22. Pretty Little Liars by Sara Shepard
23. The Dead And The Gone by Susan Beth Pfeffer
24. Scarlett Fever by Maureen Johnson
25. The Help by Kathryn Stockett
26. Balancing Acts by Zoe Fishman
27. Just Like Me, Only Better by Carol Snow
28. The Girl Who Chased The Moon by Sarah Addison Allen
29. The Lunatic, The Lover, And The Poet by Myrlin Hermes
30. Something Blue by Emily Giffin
31. Cherries In Winter by Suzan Colón
32. Get Lucky by Katherine Center
33. Best Friends Forever by Jennifer Weiner
34. The Man Who Loved Pride & Prejudice by Abigail Reynolds
35. Rumor Has It by Jill Mansell
36. On Folly Beach by Karen White
37. Somebody Everybody Listens To by Suzanne Supplee
38. The Summer We Read Gatsby by Danielle Ganek
39. Life After Yes by Aidan Donnelley Rowley
40. The One That I Want by Allison Winn Scotch
41. The Short Second Life Of Bree Tanner by Stephenie Meyer
42. Knit In Comfort by Isabel Sharpe
43. Lost by Jacqueline Davies
44. Amy & Roger’s Epic Detour by Morgan Matson
45. The Lies We Told by Diane Chamberlain
46. Rowan The Strange by Julie Hearn
47. The Truth About Delilah Blue by Tish Cohen
48. Good Things by Mia King
49. The Season Of Second Chances by Diane Meier
50. Hot Mess: Summer In The City by Julie Kraut and Shallon Lester
51. Fly Away Home by Jennifer Weiner
52. Sea Escape by Lynne Griffin
53. How To Be An American Housewife by Margaret Dilloway
54. One Day by David Nicholls
55. Short Girls by Bich Minh Nguyen
56. Write The Right Words by Sandra E. Lamb
57. The Other Mothers’ Club by Samantha Baker
58. Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart
59. Bright Lights, Big Ass by Jen Lancaster
60. Top 8 by Katie Finn
61. Holly’s Inbox: Scandal In The City by Holly Denham
62. Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
63. Maybe This Time by Jennifer Crusie
64. The Sky Always Hears Me by Kirstin Cronn-Mills
65. The Recessionistas by Alexandra Lebenthal
66. I Remember You by Harriet Evans
67. Marcelo In The Real World by Francisco X. Stork
68. Hummingbirds by Joshua Gaylord
69. I Heart New York by Lindsey Kelk
70. Extraordinary by Nancy Werlin
71. A Desirable Residence by Madeleine Wickham
72. J’adore New York by Isabelle Laflèche
73. The Debutante by Kathleen Tessaro
74. The DUFF by Kody Keplinger
75. Morning Glory by Diana Peterfreund
76. Friday Mornings At Nine by Marilyn Brant
77. Brava, Valentine by Adriana Trigiani
78. Dating Mr. December by Phillipa Ashley
79. The News Where You Are by Catherine O’Flynn
80. Cover The Butter by Carrie Kabak
81. The Mischief Of The Mistletoe by Lauren Willig
82. The Love Goddess’ Cooking School by Melissa Senate
83. The Princess Of Nowhere by Lorenzo Borghese
84. High Tea by Sandra Harper
85. The Lost Summer of Louisa May Alcott by Kelly O’Connor McNees

Losing NaNoWriMo — but winning a solid start to a novel

The bad news: for the second consecutive year, I failed at NaNoWriMo.

The good news: I actually love the book I’m writing.

Okay — maybe not love. Love is a serious word. Love develops after putting in some serious hard work with some(one)(thing) and succumbing to a sensation beyond our control.

Let’s say I’m heavily in like with my book.

So what went wrong in 2010? Unlike last year, I didn’t have the ready-made excuse of a mid-NaNo vacation to fall back on. There were no trips to California, no incredibly taxing projects at work — just little old me sitting at my desk, staring at a calendar that was quickly filling up and losing my motivation to keep cranking out the words.

To be fair (or to further bury myself?), I did quite a bit of writing in November — just not on my as-yet-untitled novel. I cranked out columns at work and reached out with my audience, asking them to send me their holiday traditions in the weeks leading up to Christmas. I’ve loved reading everyone’s letters and replied to all of them — not to mention the 40+ handwritten Christmas cards I sent to you, my lovely friends, and friends and family.

I’ve written lists and addresses, letters and book reviews. Emails, rebuttals and love notes. Hundreds of tweets.

But books? No books.

My final word count for NaNoWriMo ’10 stands at 22,277 words. In the days since the project officially ended, I’ve added a few thousand words and left Josie, the travel writer with a bruised heart (and ego), in the hands of a new editor at the paper where she’s taken a part-time position. Thinking she’ll avoid having to travel to New York and catch up with her snobbish ex-boyfriend, Josie channels her energy into helping the floundering Sentinel outside Washington, D.C.

And everything is peachy until the reporter’s notebook is suddenly turned around on her. When her ex-boyfriend’s nude painting is accepted into a prominent New York art gallery, the whole world wants to know the name of the seductive-yet-innocent nymph captured on his canvas — and Nathan, bitter and angry at Josie for ending their melting relationship, is all too happy to tell them.

And then Josie’s behind is all over the art scene.

And she’s none too happy about it.

I’m not entirely sure where this is going — plus, I need a love interest in here . . . and STAT. A women’s fiction novel without a love interest? Let’s be serious. It’s not that the romance needs to be the central focus of the story, but it certainly needs to be there. And since I’ve pretty well burned the bridge between Nate and Josie (or did they burn it themselves?), there’s no going back there. I will have to have some resolution between them, though; everyone deserves closure. But I’ll focus on that after I’ve actually reached the denouement!

In short, I’m not giving up on my project — not at all. I just didn’t have it in me to crank out a book in record time, though I heartily congratulate all those who did! I do plan on participating in future NaNos — and maybe tasting sweet victory once again. If nothing else, I love that NaNoWriMo gets me writing daily and thinking about a major project . . . something beyond my short blog posts and 450-word columns. I like plotting and delving deep into a character’s psyche — and having the r0om to really do that. I like space.

Now let’s just see if I can fill it up with another 27,000+ words.

NaNoWriMo wrap-up: Week one

In the midst of a chaotic first week of November, it was also the start of National Novel Writing Month — an international effort that asks participants to write a 50,000 word novel in 30 days (the month of November). Many of you have probably heard about it ad nauseum at this point, but I’ll throw in my own little status report — and update you on the role noveling as played in my life lately.

In college, I was all about poetry. When I wasn’t reading it and discussing it in class, I was penning my own. Long poems, short poems, sonnets, freeform, hiaku — I did it all and, most of the time, enjoyed the heck out of it. But once I left the University of Maryland with my shiny new B.A. in English, I went to work at the newspaper I’ve called my career home for the past three years. And in those three years, do you know how many poems I’ve written?

One. Maybe two. And both of there were embarrassingly terrible.

In these years since college, I’ve reconnected with my noveling roots — and NaNoWriMo has played no small part in that. A kid who would once while away entire afternoons writing epic “Star Wars” continuations in her father’s den, I’ve written no less than a dozen books in my lifetime.

Were they any good? Well, the early ones were written by a 10-year-old so, you know, I think they read the way you’d expect a 300-page tome from a fifth grader to read. But the more recent stuff, well . . . I’d like to think I’ve learned a thing or two from having thrown myself full throttle into my column and write meg! Blogging has helped me figure out a way to say things quickly, intelligently and, with any luck, humorously. So the three NaNoWriMo books I’ve written the past three years,while solid efforts of which I’m proud, aren’t the pinnacle of what I can achieve. Since last November and the start of my newspaper column, I see a major shift in my writing style and tone.

For the better, I hope.

This year’s novel, as yet untitled, is currently topping out at 11,772 words or 39 double-spaced pages. I wrote on my lunch breaks at work every day last week and quickly lost myself in the world of Josie, a freelance travel writer who hops off a bus in Brooklyn to discover she no longer carries a flame for her free-spirited, slacker boyfriend. While a talented artist, Nathan lacks a little thing called drive. And when he conveniently forgets to pick her up from a bus station in Manhattan, Josie is done and done. She slips onto the next bus back to D.C. with nary a text message to the man who once stole her heart. Then forgot he even had it.

In a fit of revenge after their cold break-up, Nathan decides he’s tired of covering up a certain canvas he toiled over for months. His most beautiful and ambitious work to date, Nate’s been hiding this beauty from a waiting art scene, afraid of what Josie would say should it appear in galleries, magazines and blogs around the world. He might not be that famous yet, but it’s only a matter of time . . . and this one? It’s one to get tongues wagging. A provocative, colorful and very nude painting.

Of Josie.

And — scene.

By the end of the week, I would like to hit 20,000 words and flesh out Josie and Nathan’s relationship. Right now, it’s all been told in dribs and drabs — a special moment here; a recovered memory there. I’m introducing peripheral characters like Josie’s pragmatic sister, Anna, and Anna’s wounded rocker brother-in-law. I have Nathan’s overachieving mama in there, too, plus Josie’s own parents — busy making new plans for life as empty nesters.

I’m not entirely sure where this is going, but I’m trying my hardest to bring in everything I love about a good women’s fiction novel: a powerful, independent and sympathetic main character; loving, colorful and well described friends and family; a moving plot which brings readers on a journey; a delicious love story which has me frantically turning the pages. I haven’t introduced all of those elements yet, but I’ll get there.

Writing is, above all else, tough work. And once the writing is done, we’re into the Edit Zone — which can be a scary, scary place. I’ll be chopping, rearranging, moving, subtracting, adding and crying. I’ll probably get disgusted a few times and want to give up. I won’t, though, and here’s why: with each book I finish, I know I’m getting closer to writing my own little masterpiece. I get better and better. And each paragraph brings me closer to my lifelong goal: becoming a published novelist.

But since life is all about the journey, I’m just enjoying this moment of creating.

And writing until my fingers ache.

That’s the only way to get it done.

Mini reviews — or, hey, I’ll never finish this book! Vol. 2

Everyone has their certain level of “tolerance” for books that just aren’t grabbing their attention. While I’m not the “I absolutely must finish this novel, no matter what!” type, I’m always hesitant to drop a novel like a bad habit.

But sometimes, it must be done.

I usually give the novel a solid 50 pages or so. If by that point, I’m fighting the urge to slam the stupid thing against a wall or can barely keep my eyelids open while wading through the dense or terrible writing, I just have to call uncle. And while I’ve definitely finished my share of bad books, I have my limits.

Alice I Have Been by Melanie Benjamin
Where I stopped: page 70

I know this one is going to land me in some hot water, mostly because just about every review I’ve read of the novel has been positive. Bloggers I greatly respect have called it one of their favorites of the year, and to that end, I ask . . . did we read the same book?

So far, I’ve found the overtones regarding the Mr. Dodgson/Lewis Carroll friendship with the Liddell girls to be totally creepy and alarming, and I think that might have been the point . . . but I just couldn’t get past that unsettled feeling in my stomach. Seriously, ick. Beyond that, I didn’t connect with any of the characters and felt awkward and sad for Pricks, the Liddell sisters’ teacher/caretaker.

Jen told me if I could tough it out past the chapters regarding Alice’s childhood, things would get better, but . . . I just couldn’t do it, friends. I just didn’t care. I borrowed this one from the library; it’s in the backseat of my Corolla, waiting to be returned. And I only feel a slight bit of remorse about that.

But on a positive note! Reviews elsewhere:
S. Krishna’s Books
Devourer Of Books
Good Books & Wine
Bookworm With A View

Arlington Park by Rachel Cusk
Where I stopped: page 30

Sweet Lord. After the opening chapter of this British novel, I felt like I could burrow my head under a sea of blankets and never come out. And not in a good way.

Just . . . depressing. There isn’t much more to say than that. From the opening chapter detailing a pouring rain that soaks the London suburb of Arlington Park to the introduction of our main (bitterly unhappy) couple, I couldn’t find anything redeeming here to make me continue reading. I was bored — BORED — and found my mind wandering to anywhere but the page in front of me, and after I’d re-read the same paragraph three or four times — and failed to grasp any meaning from it? I called it quits.

I’ll also point out that while the book was a hit with critics, it ultimately failed to move readers — especially if the low LibraryThing score and negative commentary there is any indication. Basically, it was pedantic and, as a reader, I felt like Cusk was trying to pull one over on me with the dense prose and condescending tone. Next!

But on a positive note! Reviews elsewhere:
catching days

Loot from #FridayReads = Christmas, my birthday and pink confetti

You’d be hard-pressed to find a more excited book lover than me last Monday! Two fat packages arrived for yours truly at work, carried in by my office buddy Kelly. “You have presents!” she chimed.

She wasn’t kidding.

Contained in my two padded envelopes were 10 books, a massive win from The Book Studio‘s #FridayReads program on Twitter. Each Friday, The Book Studio team asks Twitter folks to simply chat about what they’re reading that day and attach the #FridayReads hashtag to their thoughts. It’s a great way to see what your friends and followers have in hand, and I really enjoy checking out the responses throughout the day.

Before the snowpocalypse in early February, I participated and probably mentioned Austenland by Shannon Hale. Bethanne promised that if more than 500 responses came in for #FridayReads that day, The Book Studio would give away 10 books to one randomly selected winner. The response threshold was reached and, as you’ve probably guessed, I won! Throw the pink confetti!

I’d walked away from Twitter for about a half hour and when I returned, a flood of congratulations tweets filled my timeline. It took me a few minutes (and several Twitter stalkage clicks) to figure out what had happened, but then I was squealing with glee! Especially since I was housebound at that point. Girl needs something to keep her going.

What did I win, you might ask? Here’s what arrived in my mailbox:

The Embers by Hyatt Bass (fiction)
Stand The Storm by Breena Clarke (fiction)
Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen (fiction)
Cheerful Money by Tad Friend (non-fiction/memoir)
Sonata Mulattica by Rita Dove (poetry)
Lowboy by John Wray (fiction)
Things I’ve Been Silent About by Azar Nafisi (non-fiction/memoir)
The Brenner Assignment by Patrick O’Donnell (non-fiction/WWII)
Lovesick by Alex Wellen (fiction)
Drive by Daniel H. Pink (non-fiction)

Such an ecclectic group of books! I’ve already shared The Embers with a coworker, as I read it last summer on vacation; definitely a powerful read that I’ve actually thought about often, despite feeling like I really didn’t enjoy it at the time. I guess sometimes the novels that stick with us aren’t the ones we felt were “best,” but rather most poignant?

I’m really excited to make my way through the stack — pulling each one from the envelopes was a complete surprise, and so thrilling. Seriously. It felt like my birthday and Christmas and the dawning of a new millennium and a wedding (my own?) all wrapped up in two brown packages! None of them were necessarilybooks I would have chosen for myself, and I think that’s part of what makes it so fun. I definitely intend to pour over them — and y’all know I’ll be back to share.

Thanks again to The Book Studio for my fabulous prize! Remember to check out #FridayReads on Twitter and join in the fun. (I’m always there, so you know it must be good.)