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A Love Story Complicated by a Crime: “The Paying Guests” by Sarah Waters

I received a somewhat disturbing text from a friend the other afternoon. She was running late for work Paying_guestsbecause she couldn't put a book down that I'd recently leant her. "How can I go? I must read on!" "But, the children!" I cried. She is a nanny, you see, so while I could relate to her plight--I had spent a rare sunny day in Seattle, indoors, eschewing some much needed vitamin D reading the very same book--I didn't have children to keep alive. Such are the perils when one picks up The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. So readers, clear your calendars.

I had the pleasure of sitting down with Ms. Waters recently, on a not-so-rare rainy day in Seattle, to talk about this historical page-turner, set during a "politically untidy" time that has many parallels to our own. 

The story takes place in 1922 in suburban South London. WWI has ended and ex-soldiers are roaming the streets, unemployed and uncertain about the future. In a once grand and genteel house, Frances Wray--a spinster with a surprising past--lives with her mother.  "They've lost their men to war, and they've lost income and servants, and so they've had to bring in lodgers to make ends meet, and they are Leonard and Lilian Barber, the paying guests of the title. Francis is at first appalled by their gaudy furniture and bothered by the sound of them moving about upstairs, but finds herself increasingly drawn to Lilian. So the novel is the story of their affair and the sort of dramatic and really violent and alarming consequences that it has for everybody involved."

The novel was inspired, in part, by an actual murder case from that time--a case that had a "classic triangle at [its] heart--a wife, a husband, and a male lover. And, I began to think what it would be like if the lover was female--what that would do to the story, how it would touch on other issues in the period." With this germ of an idea, Waters began researching similar cases in earnest. "I was struck when I looked at those murder cases--and I looked at lots of other murder cases from the period. They did tend to feature ordinary people who by some sort of mistake, by a moment of madness, were plunged into nightmare and into disaster and ultimately towards some sort of violent death. And I was very struck by the fact that people in murder cases like that, they don't know what's coming...In the months, weeks, days leading up to the murder, they were just leading their ordinary lives."

Waters is known for plotting-out most of her books ahead of time, but she admits that she was knee-deep in the writing process before realizing that--despite the murder and the mayhem--the book is mainly a love story.  "I really was sort of rooting for Frances and Lilian but very conscious that their love came at a cost...Once I'd realized, though, that that was kind of the trajectory of the book--that it was based on their love--the book came together for me more smoothly. And then it became a novel very much about how their love is put under pressure, how it's tested by this dramatic incident, and the moral complexity of the events that follow."

Sound a bit dark? Fortunately, as fans of other Waters’s novels like Tipping the Velvet and Fingersmith can attest, she has a knack for humanizing her characters with pitch-perfect humor for the period that also resonates with a modern audience. "Often humor is so specific to its moment that it doesn't date well. There's nothing worse than, sort of, terrible comics movies from the 20s, for example...The best of them last but they just seem incredibly tiresome now as no doubt our movies will in another hundred years. So, it's trying to find humor that belongs, feels like it belongs to the period and yet still seems kind of funny to us. That’s quite a challenge...We do need to get beyond those static black and white pictures of the past and remember that people live their lives in color, and with laughter, as well as with tears and sternness. The whole range, that's how you bring the past to life."

The Paying Guests was a Best of the Month selection for September.

Who is the Shadow Hero? An Exclusive Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Go back in time and listen to an interview recorded last year with Gene Luen Yang where he talks to us about who The Shadow Hero is and where he comes from.

Click to Listen: Gene Yang Interview on The Shadow Hero


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Guest Blogger: Michael Connelly

The Gods of GuiltDefense attorney Mickey Haller returns with a haunting case in the gripping new thriller from best-selling author Michael Connelly.

In my new novel, The Gods of Guilt, the Lincoln lawyer Mickey Haller likens the practice of law to juggling chain saws: It can be dangerous, especially if you catch it by the wrong end. I think writing a novel is the same way. There are many pitfalls. You have to be careful and steady with your juggling. Still, every book is a challenge in its own way, and those challenges are set by the juggler himself. So there is no use complaining about it. If you want to take the easy route, then juggle marshmallows.
When I wrote The Gods of Guilt, I think I went with chainsaws. I gave myself a challenge that probably nobody would notice but myself. I just wanted to see if I could pull it off.

First of all, I wanted the book to function as an entertaining legal thriller with lots of intrigue, courtroom drama, and subterfuge. I wanted a few surprises too, including the death of a secondary character that the reader wouldn’t see coming. None of that was really secret in terms of the structure of the book. They were needed ingredients and difficult enough to juggle and keep in the air. The secret agenda I added was with regard to two of the main characters. While functioning as a fast-moving thriller, the book’s true center revolves around the relationship between Mickey Haller and his 16-year-old daughter, Hayley. I wanted that strained relationship to be the engine that drives Mickey’s choices and desires through the book. The book is, after all, called The Gods of Guilt. I wanted Mickey to be operating from a standpoint of seeking redemption in his daughter’s eyes, and if he succeeded, then he would save the relationship that means so much to him and ease the guilt that weighs him down as the story begins.

But here’s the catch—or, I should say, the challenge. I did not want Mickey and Hayley to have a single exchange of dialogue in the book, let alone meet face-to-face. I thought this was necessary, at least in the first half of the book, to underscore how deep the rift was between this father and daughter and how difficult it would be to bridge the gap. I wanted Mickey’s efforts to reach out and to explain his actions to be unrequited. I wanted his phone calls to go unanswered, his texts unreturned. When the centerpiece trial got underway, I wanted Mickey to turn from the defense table to look for his daughter in the public gallery, only to see she was not there.

I hope you pay attention to this as you read my novel. I know there is one scene where Mickey watches his daughter from afar, and another off the page where Hayley visits without Mickey really knowing it—you’ll understand what that means if you read the book. You’ll then be able to decide if the challenge was successfully met, and if it was the right choice. Can the father-daughter relationship be the true center of the book if the two principles never talk to one another on the page? You be the judge.

— Michael Connelly

Guest Blogger: Stuart Nadler, author of "Wise Men"

Wise MenStuart Nadler is a graduate of the Iowa Writers' Workshop, where he was awarded a Truman Capote Fellowship and a Teaching-Writing Fellowship. Recently, he was the Carol Houck Smith Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin. His fiction has appeared in The Atlantic.

Wise Men began for me with just one image: a man walking after his father in downtown Washington, D.C. This was a few years ago now. I was living outside Boston then, in a house high on the series of hills north of the city. I’d just finished my first book, a collection of stories called The Book of Life, and I’d been looking for something new, some new idea or spark or situation. The beginning of any piece of fiction is always a series of questions. I had no concept of who these people were, only that the father, as he was then, had no desire to speak to his son, and that the son, knowing this would probably be the case, kept on following him regardless. What was it that had come between them? What sin or transgression? Why were they in Washington? Already, from the start, I knew that both of them were wealthy. Where had their money come from? At one point, before he leaves, the father dictates a letter to a bartender nearby, telling his son that he doesn’t want to see him anymore, and that if he ever encountered him like this again, not to follow him. I wrote this scene in one pass. Looking back on it now, it’s interesting to see what stayed and what went, and how these first sketches of my characters compare to who they ended up becoming. Hilly Wise, my eventual main character, has some of the same determined stubbornness that he ended up possessing. And although I’d eventually swap his father Arthur out of this scene, from the start I suspected that there was a difficult dynamic between them, evidence of a strained, shared history.

I don’t remember whether I thought I had a novel then, or whether it took a few more days to convince myself to keep plugging away with these characters. What I do know is that this particular scene remained as the first chapter to Wise Men for over six months, and in those six months, I answered those first questions, and found new ones to ask. Eventually, the whole of the story emerged this way, as a process of answering and asking. Discovering what had happened between Arthur and Hilly enabled me to find the plot of this book, and it led to me the ending, which I wrote early, following a long-held hunch of mine that it’s far easier to write a compelling story when you know where it’s headed. Finally, when nearly the whole manuscript was finished, I wrote what is now the first chapter of the book––the story of Arthur Wise’s money and his fame. It’s interesting now to think about it, but one of the last choices I made was to move that first scene I wrote from the beginning to its place a few dozen pages from the end. By then, I’d written a half dozen drafts, and another hundred or so pages of scenes that I cut or abandoned. But this scene––that first idea––this stayed.

--Stuart Nadler

10 Best Kindle Books of October, 2012

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Our editors' picks this month include mothers and sons, terrorists on the run, novels ranging from heartwarming to bone-chilling, and more great choices for every reader as the days get shorter and crisper.

Introducing our selections for the Best Books of October:


 The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe

The End of Your Life Book Club by Will Schwalbe


Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher: The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan

Short Nights of the Shadow Catcher--The Epic Life and Immortal Photographs of Edward Curtis by Timothy Egan

The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden

The Finish--The Killing of Osama Bin Laden by Mark Bowden

The Round House by Louise Erdrich

The Round House by Louise Erdrich


Live by Night by Dennis Lehane

Live by Night by Dennis Lehane


The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg


The News from Spain: Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham

The News from Spain--Seven Variations on a Love Story by Joan Wickersham

Muck City: Winning and Losing in Football's Forgotten Town by Bryan Mealer

Muck City--Winning and Losing in Football's Forgotten Town by Bryan Mealer


Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe

  Back to Blood by Tom Wolfe


May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Holmes

May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Holmes

October's Kindle Books for $3.99 or Less

For great books at a low price, browse this month's 100 Kindle books for $3.99 or less, a diverse offering available all month. These deals expire on October 31, 2012. Here's a selection of our favorites from October's great collection:


Literature & Fiction 

When It Happens to You: A Novel in Stories by Molly Ringwald, $3.99

When It Happens to You--A Novel in Stories by Molly Ringwald

General Nonfiction 

All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew, $2.99

  All New Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew

Kids & Teens 

The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick, $1.99

  The Secret Zoo by Bryan Chick

Mysteries & Thrillers

77 Days in September by Ray Gorham, $1.99

  77 Days in September by Ray Gorham


Wild Montana Sky (The Montana Sky Series) by Debra Holland, $1.99

  Wild Montana Sky (The Montana Sky Series) by Debra Holland

Science Fiction & Fantasy 

American Gods: The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Enhanced Edition) by Neil Gaiman, $3.99

American Gods--The Tenth Anniversary Edition (Enhanced Edition) by Neil Gaiman

Biography & Memoir 

The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez, $0.99

The Master of Disguise--My Secret Life in the CIA by Antonio J. Mendez

Top 10 Kindle Books of September

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Our editors' picks this month include the real Count of Monte Cristo, new fiction by Junot Diaz and Zadie Smith, a riveting take on data-based forecasting (truly!), and more great choices for every reader as we balance on the cusp of fall.

The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail--but Some Don't by Nate Silver






Mortality by Christopher Hitchens






This Is How You Lose Her by Junot Diaz

This is





The Black Count: Glory, Revolution, Betrayal, and the Real Count of Monte Cristo by Tom Reiss

Black Count





Sutton by J.R. Moehringer






Every Day by David Levithan

Every day





500 Days: Secrets and Lies in the Terror Wars by Kurt Eichenwald






My Heart Is an Idiot: Essays by Davy Rothbart

My heart





NW: A Novel by Zadie Smith







The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

100 year old man



One Big Deal for a Limited Time


The Big Deal is back. More than 500 Kindle books are now available for as low as $0.99, including literature, nonfiction, thrillers, romance, cookbooks, books for kids and teens, and more. Shop for yourself, or give Kindle books--delivered when you want--to anyone with an e-mail address. (No Kindle required. Books can be read on Kindle or one of our free reading apps.) But hurry--these deals expire on August 23.

The Big Deal's diverse range of categories includes:

Literature & Fiction as Low as $0.99

Literature and Fiction as Low as $0.99






Romance as Low as $0.99

The Big Deal--Romance as Low as $0.99


Nonfiction Books as Low as $0.99

Nonfiction Books as Low as $0.99






Biographies & Memoirs as Low as $0.99

 Biographies and Memoirs as Low as $0.99






Teen Books for $2.99 or Less

The Big Deal--Teen Books for $2.99 or Less





Children's Books, $2.99 or Less

The Big Deal Children's Books, $2.99 or Less






Health, Mind & Body Books: $3.99 or Less

Health, Mind & Body Books $3.99 or Less

Top 10 Kindle Books for August

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This month's editors' picks include cheerleaders, double agents, and a trio of marvelous debuts, as well as more new choices for every reader in the dog days of summer.

The Light Between Oceans by M.L. Stedman

The Light Between OceansWhen a childless couple in an isolated Australian lighthouse discovers an infant on the beach, the choices they make have a profound impact on their lives, hearts, and souls.




The Dog Stars by Peter Heller

The Dog StarsHig survived the flu that killed most everyone else. Now this solitary pilot must follow his instincts to survive in a world where nature--not human connection--is the only real solace.




Double Cross by Ben Macintyre

Double CrossThe story of D-Day has been told from the point of view of soldiers, tacticians, and generals. Now a master of nonfiction offers a new take on this epic event: How did a band of oddball spies pull off the greatest double cross in history?



Dare Me by Megan Abbott

Dare MeAward-winning novelist Megan Abbott explores the dark side of the all-American girl in this taut, suspenseful tale of a head cheerleader knocked unceremoniously off her throne.




When It Happens to You by Molly Ringwald

When It Happens to YouThis smart, moving series of eight interlinked stories captures the rupture of a marriage, the onset of an affair, and the eminently breakable bonds between loved ones.




Winter Journal by Paul Auster

Winter JournalAt nearly 64, one of our greatest modern writers is feeling his age. As he chronicles shifts in his body, mind, and passions, Auster paints a vivid, intensely personal portrait of what it means to experience the passage of time.



The Double Game by Dan Fesperman

The Double GameIn Dan Fesperman's sensational new thriller, a failed writer turned PR man finds himself on the trail of a fellow novelist who once hinted at a side career in Cold War espionage.




Dreamland by David K. Randall

DreamlandJournalist David K. Randall's unexpected foray into sleepwalking inspired this thoughtful, entertaining exploration of what happens to us when we slumber.




We Sinners by Hanna Pylväinen

We SinnersTwo flawed parents, nine quirky kids, and one extreme sect of evangelical Lutheranism--what could possibly go wrong in this debut story of an exceptional family?




City of Women by David R. Gillham

City of WomenIn World War II-era Berlin, most men have joined the fight. One woman left behind faces desperate choices, finding new lovers and friends as she makes an attempt at salvation.


Top 10 Kindle Books for July

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This month's editors' picks include astronauts and cyclists and violinists (oh my!), as well as more new fiction and nonfiction for every summertime reader:

 Shine Shine Shine by Lydia Netzer

Shine Shine Shine by Lydia NetzerIn this singularly powerful love story that balances between two worlds, an astronaut on a perilous mission tries to save his fraying marriage to his soul mate.




The Long Walk by Brian Castner

The Long Walk by Brian CastnerBrian Castner served three tours of duty in the Middle East. When he came home, he fell apart. This is his unflinching account of the toll war exacts on those who fight.




Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness

Shadow of Night by Deborah HarknessPicking up where her sensational debut left off, the second volume in Deborah Harkness's All Souls Trilogy transports you to a land of alchemy, time travel, and magical




The Absolutist by John Boyne

The Absolutist by John BoyneSet in the trenches of World War I, this wrenching tale of passion, jealousy, heroism, and betrayal explores the deep connections--and rifts--that form during times of trial.




The Last Policeman by Ben Winters

The Last Policeman by Ben WintersWhy bother solving crimes during the countdown to the apocalypse? Detective Hank Palace may be the only one left who cares, but he refuses to let anybody get away with murder.




Office Girl by Joe Meno

Office Girl by Joe MenoOn the cusp of the 21st century, two frustrated artists find each other. Their chemistry warms a brutal winter, sparks creativity, and gives them hope--for a few minutes, anyway.




The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel JoyceHarold Fry, recently retired, decides one morning to walk across England. Along the way, he redefines his own strength, his failings, and what it means to truly remember.




Gold by Chris Cleave

Gold by Chris CleaveCyclists Kate and Zoe met at 19 in a national training program. Now 32, they're facing their biggest race. Each wants to win gold--and each has more than a medal to lose.




Broken Harbor by Tana French

Broken Harbor by Tana FrenchIn her mesmerizing fourth novel about the Dublin murder squad, best-selling author Tana French delivers her signature blend of police procedural and psychological thriller.




The Violinist's Thumb by Sam Kean

The Violinist's Thumb by Sam KeanSam Kean unlocked the mysteries of the periodic table in "The Disappearing Spoon." Now he turns his scientific storyteller's eye to DNA, the tiny building blocks that map our talents, our physicalities, and our future.