Friday, October 31, 2014

Best of the Bunch: October 2014

Today I'm sharing the best book I read in October.

Of the 15 books I read this month, three of them earned 5-star reviews from me, which is unusual, and I also read them all around the same time (maybe I was feeling particularly generous mid-month). These are the three books:

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

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh.

After some deliberation, I would say the best of the bunch was...

It was just the right amount of absurd and silly for me. There are two narratives throughout the book, one telling the events of the first 100 years of Allan Karlsson's life, and the other telling of his adventures after escaping from his "Old Folks' Home" the day of his 100th birthday. In the former, he finds himself embroiled in various historical and political events despite having no interest in politics himself, and in the latter he ends up getting entangled in various criminal activities, mostly unintentionally. I think this is a love-it-or-hate-it book, and I loved it.

What is the best book you read this month?

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Monday, October 27, 2014

Top Ten Books To Read To Get In The Halloween Spirit

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

I am not a fan of scary things. I completely identify as an HSP who cannot handle scary movies or TV shows, and I even steer clear of books that have the potential to freak me out too much. However, I was able to come up with ten books I've read that have spooky, creepy, or bizarre elements that fit right in to the Halloween season.

1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie
Murder mysteries fit right into the eerie spirit of Halloween, and Christie writes some of the best. This one is a classic — ten guests in an island mansion are picked off one by one as they desperately try to figure out which of them is the murderer. Unlike many of her other books, there is no detective in charge — just a group of isolated, scared people trying to keep themselves alive.

2. Every Day by David Levithan
This is a great YA book and a well-written, unique story that managed to creep me the f--- out. "A" wakes up in a different person's body every single day. Is A a person? a spirit? a parasite? A is a sympathetic character, but would you want A inhabiting your body for a day?

3. Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
I just reread this for book club, and it's excellent on audiobook. It's a bit less dramatic than the movies it's spawned — everything's told in retrospect as long letters and stories — but the central idea is still an original and creepy one. Frankenstein has created a gigantic being and let it loose in the world, and now he has no ability to stop it.

4. Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Al and Lil Binewski intentionally try to birth children who are deformed, odd, or otherwise abnormal in order to populate the circus they run with sideshow freaks. As their children grow, a bunch of weird and creepy events ensue, including the formation of a cult where people get amputations to be more like the flipper-limbed Arty. If the embracing of the bizarre is your favorite part of Halloween, this book will get you in the spirit for sure.

5. Macbeth by William Shakespeare
I've seen several people recommend Hamlet as a Halloween-type book, and I can see that, what with ghosts and a creepy murderer uncle and lots of people dying. But I think Macbeth better fits the bill for something spooky, with witches, prophecy, murder, and the psychological aftereffects. And then there's the way Macbeth has taken on a life of its own within the theater so that people will only refer to "the Scottish play" lest they bring the supposed curse upon them and their theater company.

6. The Name of the Star by Maureen Johnson
Someone is repeating Jack the Ripper's killing spree, but no one can see the killer — unless, like the protagonist, they've had a near-death experience. How do you stop a ghost before he commits another gruesome murder?

7. Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark by Alvin Schwartz
I told you I'm not a fan of scary things, and I'm not, but my brother had this book growing up and so I managed to read or hear all these stories at one time or another. If nothing will get you in the Halloween spirit but good old-fashioned scary stories, you can't beat this classic collection of them.

8. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
I love Roach's journalistic investigations into areas of science we don't normally hear about, and this is no exception. It covers the study of ghosts, near-death experiences, mediums, ectoplasm, and much more.

9. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson
Another classic horror novel whose telling is less exciting than the concept, but which is still worth the read. Dr. Jekyll experiments on himself and manages to unleash an entirely different personality, someone who has no morality or empathy whatsoever. It's scariest because of the implications that everyone has these darker elements within them somewhere.

10. The Witches by Roald Dahl
We all know what witches look like... or do we? According to this great book by the classic children's author, witches are real and hiding in plain sight. But there are some clues you can use to spot them...

What types of stories most get you in the Halloween spirit? Scary? Creepy? Bizarre? Gory? Dark?

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Friday, October 24, 2014

55 Questions About Books (Part 2)

Happy Friday! Here are the rest of the book-related questions I started answering here last week.

28. Favorite reading snack: I don't usually eat while reading (unless I'm reading while eating a meal), but I like having a cup of tea or hot chocolate to drink.

29. Name a case in which hype ruined your reading experience: Paper Towns by John Green. I'd heard him talk so much about it while writing it that the book's symbolism ended up hitting me over the head.

30. How often do you agree with the critics about a book? If by "critics" you mean "popular opinion," probably about 75% of the time. There are always those books that I love regardless of what anyone else says, and those I do not understand the appeal of, but most of the time the "wisdom of crowds" is fairly accurate.

31. How do you feel about giving bad/negative reviews? I have zero qualms. I rely on other people to provide honest reviews, so I want to do the same. I always provide an explanation; I wouldn't just write "This book sucks" anymore than I'd write "This book is awesome." My reviews tend to be particularly lengthy if I disliked a book other people are passionate about.

32. If you could read in a foreign language, which language would you choose? I'd love to be able to read in French more fluently.

33. Most intimidating book I've read: I read War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy this year (~1,400 pages), as well as A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth (~1,500 pages). War and Peace was on audiobook and took me several months to get through, but A Suitable Boy was in paperback and my friends could not get over how big it was.

34. Most intimidating book I'm too nervous to begin: Some day I'd like to tackle something super-dense like Finnegans Wake by James Joyce or Gravity's Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon.

35. Favorite poet: Robert Frost

36. How many books do you usually have checked out from the library at any given time? Ebooks, usually around 8, because I typically just let them sit in my account until they expire. Audiobooks, 1, because I don't know how long it will take me to get through so I won't download another until I'm done. Hardcover/paperback, anywhere from 1 to 4 depending on how many holds came through simultaneously / how many book club books I couldn't get on OverDrive.

37. How often do you return books to the library unread? Rarely.

38. Favorite fictional character: Matilda from Matilda by Roald Dahl. She's brilliant and she loves to read.

39. Favorite fictional villain: Mrs. Danvers from Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier. Evil and creepy without actually being supernatural.

40. Books I'm most likely to bring on vacation: I'll bring anything on vacation with me, but I sometimes specifically choose books I'm having a hard time getting through to take on the plane. Time to focus!

41. The longest I've gone without reading: There were probably some weeks in high school or college I went without reading when I didn't have anything specific to read for class but no time to read anything else. But generally I'm always reading something.

42. Name a book you could/would not finish: 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. Unlike some people who have had NDEs, there's no evidence he ever actually died, and his vision of heaven was really stereotypical. This part lasts only a few pages anyway, and then the rest of the book is a detailed medical description of his recovery from his accident. No thank you.

43. What distracts you easily when you're reading? If someone is having a conversation near me, my brain can't focus on the words in front of me.

44. Favorite film adaptation of a novel: Probably Matilda. Again. I liked the movie as much as the book, and it's one of my favorite books, so that's a feat.

45. Most disappointing film adaptation: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling. They took my favorite book in the whole series and changed the plot so it didn't make sense anymore.

46. Most money I've ever spent in a bookstore at one time: It's been a long time since I bought books without a bookstore gift card. Back in the day, there was probably at least one time I dropped $60-$70 on a stack of books, though.

47. How often do you skim a book before reading it? Never for fiction; nonfiction, only if it catches my eye and I'm trying to decide whether to add it to my to-read list.

48. What would cause you to stop reading a book halfway through? If the writing is bad (which could mean all kinds of things) AND it's not a book I'm reading for any particular reason — e.g., a book club pick, a classic, or a book someone recommended it to me. I might also stop if a book is too violent/disturbing, but my threshold is much higher with print than with visuals.

49. Do you like to keep your books organized? Yeah, we have one bookshelf of nonfiction (arranged by color because I rarely remember who wrote a nonfiction book), one small bookshelf of our favorite series, and one large bookshelf with two shelves for fiction (alphabetized by author), one shelf for Bibles and reference guides, and two shelves for books posted on and

50. Do you prefer to keep books or give them away once they've been read? See #15. If I don't plan to reread a book or lend it out, I'll post it on Half or PaperBackSwap.

51. Are there any books that you've been avoiding? Dracula by Bram Stoker. I don't like supernatural stuff and I don't like scary stuff, but it's a classic... I'm sure I'll read it eventually.

52. Name a book that made you angry: The Younger Gods by David Eddings. I am a big Eddings fan, and this was the last book of his last series before he died. The first three books of the series were great, and then this one had the worst ending ever. It wasn't quite an "it was all a dream" ending but it was close. It was ridiculous.

53. A book I didn't expect to like but did: American Gods by Neil Gaiman. As I said, I'm not much of a fantasy fan, and I was kind of meh on the other books by Gaiman I've read, but this book was absolutely fantastic.

54. A book I expected to like but didn't: This Star Won't Go Out by Esther Earl. I'm a devoted Nerdfighter and John Green wrote the introduction plus kept talking about how great the book was, but I think much of that was probably because he knew her personally. I found it very difficult to read.

55. Favorite guilt-free guilty pleasure reading: Hmm... probably mysteries, most recently Robert Gailbraith / J.K. Rowling's Cormoran Strike novels. Most of what I read is more "literature," with symbolism and stuff, but I love a straight-up action-packed mystery.

Whew! That's more than you probably wanted to know about my reading habits. If you've answered these questions, leave your link in comments!

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Monday, October 20, 2014

Top Ten New Series I Want to Start

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic, new series I want to start, defines "new" as published within the last year or two. However, I read series so rarely that it was difficult to come up with ten series total I want to read that would be new to me, so we're going to run with that. (I'm leaving out books that are technically part of a series but are generally recommended as stand-alone books.)

1. Discworld by Terry Pratchett
I have actually read two books in this series, first Going Postal (which I remember fairly well) and then The Color of Magic (about which I remember nothing). So many of the different books in this series have been recommended to me at one time or another that I figure I might as well commit to eventually reading them all through in order.

2. Famous Five by Enid Blyton
My friend from New Zealand mentioned these books and was amazed that I wasn't familiar with them. They're a well-known series of children's books in the British Commonwealth and were mentioned frequently in Family Matters, a book set in India I read recently. I probably won't read all 21 of them, but I can get a compilation of the first three books from our library.

3. The Inheritance Cycle by Christopher Paolini
I'm not much of a fan of epic fantasy, but Eragon has had staying power and the whole series has good ratings, so I'll give it a try.

4. The Infernal Devices by Cassandra Clare
References to both of Clare's series have been popping up more and more recently, so I plan to get caught up... eventually.

5. The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien
Nope, I've never read them. I read The Hobbit in middle school and found it so terrifically boring that I never had any interest in picking up this series. But I don't feel like I can call myself a true book buff until I've tackled them.

6. Mark of the Lion by Francine Rivers
Rivers' Redeeming Love is one of my favorite books, so when I saw that this series had incredibly high ratings on Goodreads, I decided to put it on my to-read list.

7. The Mortal Instruments by Cassandra Clare
Again, this is my attempt to get caught up on at least one series that's been popular recently.

8. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
I came across this in my quest to branch out from all the white American authors I typically read. It's a four-volume autobiographical graphic novel of Satrapi's life growing up in Iran. I have a few Iranian-American friends but have not read much set in this country, and I have yet to read a graphic novel, though I want to, so I'm looking forward to this series.

9. Outlander by Diane Gabaldon
Anne Bogel has been gushing about this series a lot lately, and I've seen references to it all over with the TV series starting up. It's been recommended I read it as an audiobook to experience the Scottish brogue, so that's probably what I'll do.

10. A Song of Ice and Fire by George R.R. Martin
Nothing I've heard about this series (e.g., high fantasy, violence) makes it sound like my kind of books, but like with Lord of the Rings, I might as well tackle it eventually. I think I'll wait until Martin's finished writing it, though.

Reading a series is a commitment, which is one reason I read so few of them. Which series do you consider worth tackling?

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Friday, October 17, 2014

55 Questions about Books (Part 1)

Melbourne on My Mind introduced me to a list of book-related questions that originated here. Like her, I am splitting this into two parts to make it more readable. I tried to avoid elaborating too much on any response because it's still quite long — share reactions, questions, thoughts in comments!

1. Favorite childhood book: The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster or Matilda by Roald Dahl

2. What are you reading right now? Audiobook: Walk Two Moons by Sharon Creech. Kindle: Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

3. What books do you have on request at the library? Hard copy: The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King. Audiobook: Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Kindle: What Alice Forgot by Liane Moriarty; Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty; Spiritual Misfit by Michelle DeRusha; Pastrix by Nadia Bolz-Weber.

4. Bad book habit: Putting holds on too many books (see #3), ending up getting them all at the same time, and getting stressed out about finishing them before I have to return them.

5. What do you currently have checked out at the library? Nothing hard copy. Digitally, the books I'm currently reading (see #2), plus all the ones I finished recently: Sister Outsider by Audre Lorde; Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan; Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor; The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson; I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai.

6. Do you have an e-reader? Yes, I have a Kindle. Most of my reading is ebooks I check out through OverDrive and then read on my Kindle plus the Kindle apps on my phone and on my desktop.

7. Do you prefer to read one book at a time, or several at once? I almost always have three books going at once: one on audiobook, which I listen to when I run in the morning; one on Kindle, which I read before bed and wherever I happen to find a spare moment; and one hardcover or paperback that I'll pick up when I have free time in the evening or on the weekend.

8. Have your reading habits changed since starting a blog? I just started this blog, so... no.

9.Least favorite book you've read this year: Love Does by Bob Goff. Supposed to be about service and Christian living, but really should be subtitled "A Story of Wealth and White Male Privilege."

10. Favorite book you've read this year: Probably Parent Effectiveness Training by Thomas Gordon or "Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?" by Beverly Daniel Tatum. I'm a sucker for a well-written non-fiction book.

11. What is your reading comfort zone? I didn't think I had one until my friend asked for recommendations of a fun, escapist book and I realized most of what I read deals with serious topics — I read a lot of non-fiction, classics, and what would probably be considered contemporary literature (as opposed to commercial fiction). I'm open to most genres, but I generally don't read sci-fi/fantasy, romance/chick lit, or poetry.

12. How often do you read out of your comfort zone? This is one of the reasons I love my book clubs, because they get me to pick up books I wouldn't necessarily read otherwise. Even so, they tend to stick within the same realm of literature/classics. I've been trying to do a better job of not turning down recommendations just because they fall in one of my less-favorite genres.

13. Can you read in the car? Not for more than a couple of minutes. That's another bad book-related habit: reading in the car for more than a few minutes and making myself sick. When we go on long trips I sometimes volunteer to drive just so I can listen to an audiobook.

14. Favorite place to read: On a porch swing or hammock when it's nice out, although this often ends up with me taking a nap.

15. What's your policy on book lending? I'm a fan; I primarily keep books because 1) I want to reread/reference them or 2) I want to have them to lend out. I am not great about keeping track of who has my books, though, which is how I lost my copy of Will Grayson, Will Grayson (thankfully the only John Green book I have that was not signed).

16. Do you dog-ear your books? Never. I recently got a book from the library that had a bunch of dog-eared pages and I dutifully unfolded them as I went.

17. Do you write notes in the margins of your books? No, because I mostly read books from the library, and those I get in hard copy I either turn around and post on PaperBackSwap — which requires clean pages — or want to lend out to people (without their reading my notes!). I got in the habit of margin-writing in high school, when it was required, and quickly got out of it when I got to college and wanted to sell my books at the end of the semester.

18. Do you break/crack the spine of your books? I try not to — I have a lot of bookmarks so I don't have to lay a book flat open.

19. What is your favorite language to read? I'm only fluent in English, but I'm proud of myself for the few books I've made it through in French.

20. What makes you love a book? Hard to pin down. Obviously, well-rounded, real characters, a lack of plot holes, and an interest in what happens next are all important for fiction, and I appreciate beautiful writing if it's not too dense. If it makes me laugh or cry on more than one occasion, it's probably pretty good. For nonfiction, it needs to teach me something new about something interesting in a way that's clear and easy to follow without logical leaps or a lack of sources.

21. What will inspire you to recommend a book? Often people will ask for recommendations of a specific kind, so I'll just pick books I enjoyed that fit the request. I'll recommend a book I just finished on Goodreads if I think a friend would particularly like the topic or writing style.

22. Favorite genre: I enjoy nonfiction probably more than most people. I love mysteries but don't read them often enough. Other than that, I'm pretty open as long as it's good.

23. Genre you rarely read (but wish you did): I should read more poetry. I like it, but it can require a lot of brainpower and so I tend to skip over poetry recommendations more than I should.

24. Favorite biography: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot

25. Have you ever read a self-help book? (And was it actually helpful?) Yeah, some, with varying degrees of helpfulness. It's not clear what exactly qualifies as "self-help," but books like Daring Greatly by Brené Brown and Switch by Chip and Dan Heath would be some of my favorites.

26. Favorite cookbook: The Hungry Girl cookbook, only because I used to read her site and I e-mailed her to say, "You should create a cookbook!" and then a few years later she created one and I felt like I had some small part in that :)

27. Most inspirational book you've read this year (fiction or non-fiction): The Art of Happiness by Dalai Lama XIV inspired me to pay more attention to which things in my life create or detract from happiness.

Stay tuned for the rest of the questions and answers next week!

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Tuesday, October 14, 2014

What I've Been Reading Lately (Twitterature)

Today I'm linking up with Modern Mrs. Darcy's Twitterature to bring you some short and sweet reviews of what I've read in the past month. For longer reviews, you can always find me on Goodreads.

Marcelo in the Real World by Francisco X. Stork: Reread of a favorite. Marcelo, who has an Asperger's-like condition, must navigate office politics and ethical questions in his first "real" job. My book club found the ending too neat but the book charming.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker: I should have hated it — plot holes and unanswered questions galore — but the writing was too beautiful and the story too sweet not to steal my heart.

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America by Melissa V. Harris-Perry: Insightful and chock-full of research about how black American women are perceived and how they perceive themselves, both historically and today.

More Than Serving Tea: Asian American Women on Expectations, Relationships, Leadership and Faith by Kathy Khang, Christie Heller de Leon, Asifa Dean, and Tracey Gee: Interesting personal stories bogged down in too many platitudes and too much Christianese. Glossed over too many things and provided little solid research.

32 Candles by Ernessa T. Carter: Fun chick lit ruined for me by the main heartthrob's lack of respect for the protagonist's "no."

We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler: Wild, wonderful, funny novel that weaves in topics of family, psychology, animal rights, parenting, and memory. Highly recommended and would be great to discuss.

The Souls of Black Folk by W.E.B. Du Bois: Written around the start of the 20th century, it's valuable for its historical insights, though the patronizing generalizations got to me after a while.

The Road by Cormac McCarthy: A book I can appreciate even if I didn't like it that much (but then I don't like much post-apocalyptic literature). Pretty damn depressing, but asks some important questions about morality and parenting.

Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry: A great examination of how we are our best and worst selves with our family members. Sad, funny, and insightful, except the ending is weird and totally out of line with the rest of the book.

I Am Malala: The Girl Who Stood Up for Education and Was Shot by the Taliban by Malala Yousafzai: Malala and her family have a fascinating and worthwhile story, but I wish it had been written as a biography rather than a memoir because most of it is not Malala's own personal experience. Still worth the read.

The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson: This absurd satirical comedy will not be everyone's cup of tea, but I found it hilarious and wonderful. It's like a mix of Terry Pratchett, Forrest Gump, and Ocean's Eleven.

Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry by Mildred D. Taylor: Why didn't I ever read this in school? Like To Kill a Mockingbird, it deals with racism in the American South in the 1930s, but in contrast, it's written by a black woman, narrated by a black girl, and her black father is the hero. Deals well with both the reality of racism and the reality of how black families prepare their children for a racist world.

Sing You Home by Jodi Picoult: As a Picoult fan and gay rights advocate, I was sorely disappointed in this book. It tried to cram too many arguments in and contributed to bisexual erasure and transphobia. Thumbs down.

Gang Leader for a Day by Sudhir Venkatesh: Absolutely fascinating firsthand look at poverty, corruption, and gang activity from Venkatesh's field research. A heartbreaking but important read for anyone who wants to discuss these issues.

Homeless Bird by Gloria Whelan: Koly's story is inspiring, but the book read too much like the American author was trying to squeeze in as much vocabulary and Indian culture as possible. Would be great for a middle-grade unit teaching kids about India, but wasn't a favorite as far as stories go.

What have you been reading this month? Share over at Modern Mrs. Darcy!

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Friday, October 10, 2014

What Makes a Good Book Club?

Last week I wrote about my four book clubs and how they're organized. Before settling on these, I tried out some other local book clubs that ultimately didn't work for me. By now, I have some opinions on what makes a book club work well — and what makes me peace out after only one meeting.

Picking a good location
Finding the right location can be difficult, particularly if you have a large group. Many places with private rooms charge for the use of them, and you may not want to have to charge dues to members in order to afford use of the space every month. For my local book club who recently had to move after the restaurant whose back room we'd used for years closed down, one of the organizers negotiated with a local restaurant for use of their private space every month in exchange for a minimum $5 purchase from each participant. This is not ideal, but it's better than nothing. I've attended book clubs that just met in a regular restaurant and got a table for the 10-15 people who showed up, and it was so loud and everyone was so far away from each other that having any sort of coherent discussion was next to impossible.

I prefer having a consistent location for every meeting vs. meeting in a new location each time, but that may be because I personally find it stressful to go to a new place where I have to find my way, figure out parking, etc. It's also nice to find a place that has good, reliable service and not have to take a risk every time. After the one club's meeting spot closed down, we tried a new place a few times, but they were rarely ready for us, the service was slow, and the last time we went they charged everyone the wrong amounts. If we hadn't changed locations again after that, I was ready to quit.

Actually discussing the book
This is the No. 1 reason I haven't gone back to several book clubs I tried. If I take the time to read a book in order to discuss it, and then commit an hour or two of my time to a book club meeting, I want to talk about the book! Yes, it's nice to get to know people, but once everyone's settled there needs to be a call to order and an intentional start to the discussion. I went to one book club meeting that was almost two hours long (from the time I sat down until the time I paid my bill and could leave) and we spent 5, maybe 10 minutes of that time actually talking about the book. Other than that, it could have been any happy hour get-together, with people talking about their lives, their favorite places to eat, and so on. If I wanted to make small talk for two hours, I would have sought out some other social group, not a book club.

Having a discussion plan
Some books are going to lend themselves to immediate discussion topics, but most will need a kick to get the discussion started. Hearing everyone's initial reactions (which could be as simple as "would recommend"/"would not recommend") is a good way to make sure everyone gets to contribute, and also lends itself to follow-up questions about specific elements that people liked or didn't like. A good organizer will have some discussion questions ready to throw out if needed and will also know when the discussion has been exhausted and it's time to wrap up.

Maintaining good communication outside of meetings
There are a lot of tools for organizing a book club (two of mine use and two use Facebook groups), but the main thing is that needs to be one place where people can go to find out 1) what the group is currently reading and 2) when the group is meeting to discuss said book. Whether books are selected by a group vote or a executive decision by the organizer, it should be clearly communicated so new members know how/when/where they can suggest new books to read and whether there are any restrictions on the genres or number of pages the group will read. Also important to communicate is if the group meets at the same time every month or if that month's meeting time is decided by consensus (or if the group meets more or less frequently than once a month), and if people needs to RSVP in order to attend.

These are the main attributes of a quality book club, in my opinion. I want clear communication about what we're reading and when we're meeting, I want to meet in a place that is conducive to conversation, and I want a facilitator who's going to get everyone talking about the book and keep the discussion moving.

How does this fit with your experience? What would you add?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Top Ten Books For Readers Who Like Character-Driven Novels

I'm linking up with The Broke and the Bookish for another Top Ten Tuesday.

This week's topic is books for readers who like character-driven novels. I found it a little bit difficult to nail down a definition of character-driven books, but as I started looking through the books I'd read, I started to find some great examples of books where getting to know the characters is far more important than anything that happens to them. If that's what you're looking for, here are my suggestions:

1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This is primarily the story of Henry, recruited to college to play baseball, but it's also the story of his mentor, the college president, and the president's daughter, all of whom are interconnected in different ways. The characters each have their own pressures to deal with and decisions to make. Although some plot points were questionable for me, I enjoyed seeing the development of the characters and their relationships to one another.

2. Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns
This book paints a picture of a small town in Georgia at the turn of the 20th century. The characters are true-to-life in their complexity, and the book explores the deep and the shallow feelings that can coexist in a single person as characters react to the scandal of Will Tweedy's grandfather marrying a much younger woman.

3. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner
No description can do this book justice because the plot is the least important part. This story of the friendship between two couples was introduced to me by one of my book clubs, and it's a great example of a book I wouldn't have necessarily picked up on my own but ended up loving. It touches on questions of friendship, marriage, and the meaning of life -- really.

4. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
The rich lyricism of Roy's writing extends to her characters in this heartbreaking novel. At the novel's center are twins Rahel and Estha, whose relationship is so close that they only feel whole when they are together. There is plenty of plot in this book (much of it tragic), but ultimately the reward of this book is in the connection you feel to the characters and the ability to experience their emotions at each unfolding event.

5. The Homecoming of Samuel Lake by Jenny Wingfield
Similar to Cold Sassy Tree, this book is about a close-knit family in a small town. These vibrant and memorable characters are each trying to do what they believe is right, but as in real life, the right thing to do isn't always clear and isn't the same for every person. Even if you're not one to cry over fictional characters, this one may just get to you. Be aware that the book touches on some disturbing topics, including animal abuse, child abuse, and sexual abuse, but in my opinion it's handled well.

6. The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd
This novel is a work of historical fiction about the life of Sarah Grimké, who narrates alternately with the wholly fictional Handful, a 10-year-old girl who is "given" to Sarah as an 11th birthday present to be her personal slave. Both girls learn and grow as they age, individually enduring pain and loss in different magnitudes. They develop a complicated relationship with one another, close yet distant. The story is engaging primarily because the characters are intriguing and their personal journeys are captivating.

7. The Memory Keeper's Daughter by Kim Edwards
This book follows the trajectory of its characters' lives from a single moment, when Dr. David Henry hands off his newborn daughter with Down Syndrome to the nurse and tells his wife that the baby died. His guilt and her grief play out over the decades in parallel (and contrast) with the close relationship the nurse and her adoptive daughter form. This is not a plot-driven book but an intimate exploration of how one moment -- and the secrets it spawns -- can affect multiple lives in different ways.

8. The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin
This book has no straightforward plot arc -- it weaves and twists the way that real life tends to unfold. A man who has worked his orchard alone for decades suddenly finds two homeless, pregnant teenagers have made it their new home. The characters are multifaceted, have complicated relationships with one another, and sometimes behave in unexpected ways. It took me a while to get invested in the story, but once I started caring about the characters there was no looking back.

9. The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver
A minister from the South takes his wife and daughters with him to be a missionary in the Congo, and life as they know it is uprooted. All the characters react to their new life in very different ways, and we get to see inside each of their heads as they alternately narrate chapters. Ultimately what and how much they learn from the experience depends on how much they open themselves up to learning, and at least one of the characters is likely to resonate with you personally.

10. The School of Essential Ingredients by Erica Bauermeister
Each chapter of this novel explores a different character, all of whom have joined a monthly cooking class in Lillian's restaurant. We get to see their present-day experiences interwoven with the memories and emotions they bring with them from their individual lives. They each learn about more than just cooking and begin to reach out to connect with one another on a deeper level.

What are your favorite character-driven novels?

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Four Ways to Structure a Successful Book Club

I belong to three book clubs. (I sometimes attend a fourth if they're reading something interesting or something I've already read and enjoyed.) I've tried and abandoned at least two more, and one I joined never got off the ground.

It never occurred to me to join a book club until I read MWF Seeking BFF and realized that it was the most obvious possible way for me to meet people. I love reading and I love talking about books, and if I'm looking for someone with common interests, where better to find them?

So I tried out a few local book clubs and found one I liked. Shortly thereafter one of my online communities decided to start a virtual book club. And then, a few months ago, the local chapter of an organization I'm part of decided to read the executive director's book and discuss it, and we liked doing a book discussion so much we've been doing it every month since.

Being in multiple book clubs is feasible for me because I read 2-3 books a week, so I'm able to get through all my book club reads plus some of my own picks every month. I like that book clubs introduce me to books I probably wouldn't have read on my own, and hearing other people's perspectives on a book helps me to see it from new angles. I also like having the chance to introduce other people to some of my favorite books and hearing their thoughts on it (though this can be really nerve-wracking!).

My three book clubs (plus the fourth I sometimes attend) are all structured very differently, so I thought I'd give a brief overview of each of them for anyone looking to create one of their own or evaluate their available options.

Book Club #1:
  • Group makeup: This book club has been in existence for probably over a decade now, so we have members who have been coming for years but always have some new faces every month. Most of the members are older than me, but lately we've had more folks in their 20s and 30s attending.
  • Organization and meeting setup: The book club is organized via We meet at the same time the last Sunday of every month, in the same location, although we recently had to move after the restaurant whose back room the club had been using for years closed down. We usually have 10-20 attendees. It takes about half an hour for everyone to get settled and get food or drinks ordered, and then we spend about an hour discussing.
  • Selecting books: Every two months the organizers open up a forum thread on the Meetup site for book nominations, then close it and open up a poll where everyone can vote on the next book to read, with the top two vote-getters as the picks for the next two months. It used to be that the only rule was that you could nominate anything but romance novels, but recently a new rule was instituted that books need to be around 350 pages or less because people were having trouble getting through super-long books in a month. We sometimes have special themes, like July is Classics month, and for November everyone gets to bring in two favorite books to share, which you then pick from for your January read. Also there used to be a rule that you couldn't nominate a book you hadn't read, but that has since been abandoned.
  • Discussion format: After one of the organizers gives a brief introduction, we go around and introduce ourselves. Then the person who nominated the book starts off the discussion by saying why they nominated it and what they thought of it, and then we go around the circle so everyone has a chance to share their thoughts. After that, if there's time remaining, we open it up to general discussion.

Book Club #2:
  • Group makeup: This book club has been around for a little over a year now. Because of the online community it came out of, we're all in our 20s (as far as I know) -- at least the people who have actually attended the discussions -- and almost all women. We have attendees from all over the United States, plus one in the UK and one in Ireland who sometimes attend.
  • Organization and meeting setup: We use a closed Facebook group for organization and use Google+ Hangouts On Air for our discussions. The group went from Open to Closed because 1) we had a ton of people join and vote on books but never attend the discussions and 2) we had a person join the Hangout one time who just wanted to harass people and had to be quickly banned. Now you can join only if someone personally invites you to the group. We use a Doodle poll to find a time for our discussion each month, though we quickly narrowed the standard options down to the first two weekends of the month following when the book was read. Generally 2-4 people join the Hangout; I think 5 is the most we've ever had. The discussion lasts for about half an hour up to an hour.
  • Selecting books: We have a document on the Facebook group that anyone can edit to add new books to the list. (We recently added the requirement that you have to put your name next to your nomination.) Every two months the organizer uses a random number generator to select five books from the list and puts them in a poll on the group page, and the top two vote-getters are the books for the next two months. We don't currently have any rules on what kind of books can be nominated, except that you can't nominate a book we've read in the past two years.
  • Discussion format: After we find an agreed-upon time with the Doodle poll (which can sometimes be difficult with people who can't figure out how to calculate time zones), the organizer posts a Google+ Hangout link on the Facebook group at the appointed time. Once we're all there (or we don't think anyone else is going to show up), the organizer turns the Hangout "On Air" and we start the discussion. Generally we'll find a list of discussion questions for the book and, after everyone shares their initial thoughts on the book, we'll use the list for ideas about what topics we'd like to discuss.

Book Club #3:
  • Group makeup: So far the meetings have consisted of only me and two other people. We are trying to get more people from the organization to join in, but it's only been a few months, so we're hopeful it will grow.
  • Organization and meeting setup: One of us will pick a local restaurant we want to try (requirements: relatively inexpensive, has vegetarian options) and then will post a notice on our chapter's Facebook group with the date, time, location, and book we're reading. Since there's only three of us right now, we just get out our calendars at the end of each meeting and pick a discussion date and time for the next month, and then we Facebook message each other if we need to reschedule.
  • Selecting books: We read books within a pretty narrow topic field. So far we've just thrown it open for suggestions at the end of each meeting and someone will recommend a book they've read or heard about in this field. We discuss and agree on what to read for next time.
  • Discussion format: We have no specific format for discussion. Generally we end up discussing how the information or stories in the book relate to our own personal experiences, which can sometimes lead the discussion away from the book itself for a while, but that's OK.

Book Club #4:
  • Group makeup: This group is part of a larger Meetup group geared toward young women seeking friendship in the local area, so it's all women in their 20s and 30s. This means it's the best option for me to actually make a friend, which is why I attend occasionally even though I'm not crazy about most of the books they pick.
  • Organization and meeting setup: Meetings are posted on the Meetup page. The group usually meets at the same place every month, although they just decided to move to a new location for next month. Unlike Book Club #1, there are no pre-arrangements made for a separate room at the meeting place (a restaurant or bar), so it can be a little loud to have a good discussion. The few times I've gone there were about a dozen women there, so it was hard to hear people at the other end of the table.
  • Selecting books: At the end of the meeting, the organizer asks for suggestions for books. Ultimately she decides what book will be read next and posts it with the meeting description. This usually means it's just a book she's been wanting to read, which is why I'm not always that interested in the selections.
  • Discussion format: The meetings I've attended haven't had any specific format, although the organizer has a list of discussion questions to fall back on if the discussion peters out.

As you can see, there are a lot of different ways to put together a successful book club! Having experienced so many different ones, I have some opinions about what makes a good book club, but I will save that for another time.

Are you in a book club (or more than one)? In what ways is it similar to or different from these?