How to Get More Book Club In Your Life

If you’re going to scroll right by this because you’re not a book club person, stop for just a second. I used to think the same thing, but I’ve found a bunch of different book clubs that work for me in a bunch of different ways. 

The Any Book Book Club

This is the invention of one of my fellow contributors at Book Riot. The Any Book Book Club frees you from the usual Book Club model. If you don’t like having to read something by a deadline, or having other people choose the book, or discussion questions, then this is the perfect book club for you. There is no assigned book, instead you just show up with a bunch of your reader friends and talk about what you’ve been reading that you love. Not only is it fun to see your bookish buds, you also get a bunch of recommendations to add to your to-read list.

read harderThis is the model we follow for the Read Harder Book Groups, too. You can find them in a whole bunch of cities now with more to come. We’ve been going in Boston since September and I’ve enjoyed every single one. Bookish people are a great bunch, and I’ve made several friends through our group. Plus it’s just so chill, everyone is accepting of different tastes, and there’s lots of note taking and comparing opinions and general goodness. If you’re that person who is always talking about books, this is a great place to get it all out. 

Or you could start your own!

The Book of the Month Club

I was invited to try out Book of the Month Club last year and I really enjoyed it. The model is super simple. Each month they give you 5 selections, you pick the one that sounds best to you, and they send it to you. There’s discussions online around the books, so if you’re not much for in-person book clubs, this is a great fit. And I’ve been very impressed with the picks. They tend to be very new releases, often very buzzy, and the selection usually includes nonfiction, crime novels, women’s fiction, and literary fiction. 

I am friends with a few people who work with and judge books for Book of the Month Club. My initial subscription was complimentary. I liked it so much that I took them on as an affiliate partner, so joining through me helps support DMTM at no extra cost to you.

 

You can skip any month where you don’t like the titles. You can read at your own pace, since the discussions stay up even after the month passes. Plus, you pay less than you’d pay for the book in a store. (1 month is $16.99 for a new release hardcover, and it’s as low as $11.99 if you sign up for a year.) PLUS they’re running a ridiculous sale now so you can get 3 months for half off (that’s $7.50 per book!) using code APR50. So head to Book of the Month Club quick and if you make it by April 21st you can still get one of this month’s selections. 

Meetup.com

If you don’t know many people in your area or you don’t have a local bookish crew, then meetup.com is a great place to look for local book clubs. This is how I found my favorite book club of all time, where we read mostly classics, and we had actual MEN and people of all ages. If you’re feeling particularly brave, you can start your own book club there. You do have to pay a fee to keep the listing up, but you also get to make it whatever book club you want. Cozy mysteries? Romances? Obscure fiction in translation? Go for it!

Facebook Book Clubs

Another great virtual option is to start your book club on Facebook. You can use polls to choose books so everyone gets a say, and put discussion questions in individual threads. Since most of your friends are there anyway, and you may have reader friends who aren’t local, you can all congregate there for discussions. I’ve had some great success with online book clubs, these can work on forums and message boards, too.

Office Book Clubs

Yes, I go to my book club at the office when I can. At first I was kind of skeptical, but ultimately the convenience won me over. I didn’t even have to go anywhere, I just stay a little late one evening a month. Plus our group brings snacks and treats that go with the book. And any book club with snacks is a book club I would like to be a part of. We are already all connected through office email and use the same calendars, so it makes planning really simple. 

This model works for any group you already see regularly: Church, school, neighborhood, etc. 

 

And a few tips to maximize your awesomeness once you’ve got your book club going:

  • Lean towards backlist titles (aka books that have already been released in paperback). That makes it a lot more accessible for people with a small budget or who get the book from the library and won’t have to wait in a long hold line.
  • Don’t forget to keep track of what you’re reading. Are you reading all male authors? All white authors? A diverse set of books is more appealing to a wide group and it makes for a more interesting mix. 
  • Connect with your book club on Goodreads. Once you have a feeling for who you mesh with, you can see what else they’re reading and get great book picks that way.
  • Reach out to authors! Remember when I got Lev Grossman to do a Q&A with my book club when we read The Magicians a few years ago? That was pretty cool and it really made for a more interesting discussion. Some authors will do Skype meetups with your book club, too, so check the author’s web page and Twitter.
  • Read a book with a movie or tv-show tie-in. That always generates a whole bunch of discussion about which was better. (Although you know it’s always the book.) And if there isn’t a show, maybe create your own dream cast as one of your book club questions?
  • If your club doesn’t have a dedicated genre focus, try different ones and don’t be afraid to try something new.
  • Keep up with local author visits. If an author is visiting for a new release, have your book club read one of their older titles and go to the reading and Q&A together.

I’d love to hear your best book club experiences, your best practices, and your favorite book club reads.

BeYourBestBook Club

Cozy Up with Winter Books

Even though we tend to save the beach books for summer and the important tomes for fall, every year some of my absolute favorites come out early. Last year two of the year’s most buzzed books, A Little Life and Girl on the Train were out in March and January, respectively. So happy us, with so much to read (and reserve!) in these chilly months.

These are listed alphabetically because you cannot make me choose. All links are to Amazon, all are affiliate links and purchasing through them helps support the blog!

Out Now

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle is one of those unusual books that is doing many, many things at one time and yet it also manages to be wildly entertaining. This is Horror, I know that’s an automatic out for some of you, but it’s also a big throwback, specifically to the writing of H. P. Lovecraft. The problem with Lovecraft is that a lot of his writing was explicitly and horribly racist. And yet he’s considered the father of modern horror fiction. LaValle, who is one of my favorite writers and I will read anything he does because he is always interesting, basically writes  his own Lovecraft story, except at the heart of it is a black man who experiences the real horrors of racial injustice. It’s a real feat. And, you know, it’s also a really great supernatural horror story whether or not you love the old school style.

The Guest Room by Chris Bohjalian was the first 2016 release I read, way back in summer. Bohjalian is a pretty reliable writer who moves between pretty much any genre, he is so good at raising tension and holding it. His new book is basically a thriller that starts with a bachelor party that goes horribly wrong. You cannot stop turning the pages of this book, and I am not joking. Just read the first chapter and see if you can quit. And when you finally put it down and take a breath you realize that you just finished a unique examination of rape culture and sexual trafficking along with all the fast-paced suspense. 

Juliet Takes a Breath  by Gabby Rivera was a title I knew I had to pick up after following the author as an editor at Autostraddle, including some excellent OITNB recaps. And how could I not pick up a story about a newly out lesbian Latina from the Bronx who is suddenly a fish-out-of-water in hippie Portland? These days I find myself wanting something different, dammit, as I quit book after book about young white kids moving to New York City. Snooze. I want to hear something new. I want to see something different. And this fit the bill perfectly. We need more.

The Opposite of Everyone by Joshilyn Jackson is the latest entry from one of my long-time loved authors. Jackson’s books are always a mix of dark and light, funny and sad. This one is a new step and I approve of the new direction. Do not let the cutesy cover fool you. Paula is a badass lawyer… and also a mess. Not the cute kind of mess either. The blackout drunk kind. Paula is still recovering from her disastrous childhood, biracial and fatherless, raised by a white woman who named her after an Indian goddess, never staying in the same place for long, and eventually going to prison and sending Paula to be a ward of the state. Paula’s past comes back to haunt her when she gets a letter from her long-lost mother and decides to track her down. The book moves through time, from Paula’s childhood to the present, as she tries to figure out who she is and who she wants to be.

The Queen of the Night by Alexander Chee is the rare historical novel I not only pick up willingly but devour. If you’re an opera fan, like I am, this one is a must-read. Even if you’re not, there is a reason this book has been so crazy with buzz in the book world. It’s the closest readalike I’ve ever found to one of my favorite classics: The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s full of twists, betrayals, double-crosses, secrets, etc. etc. etc. It goes from the circus to the brothel to the palace to the opera house and plenty more along the way. I do not want to spoil any of it for you, but if you’re like me and usually don’t read much historical fiction, you may want to reconsider.

Up to This Pointe by Jennifer Longo is the only YA on this list, but I’m a total sucker for a ballerina book. (I know some of you are the same.) Harper is a high school ballerina who has planned out her life with her best friend Kate. When that plan goes off the rails, Harper decides to escape from everyone and head to an internship in Antarctica just like her ancestor the famous explorer who tried to reach the South Pole. A fun contemporary YA with a truly unusual setting. A light and easy read that will make you grateful that no matter how cold it is where you are, at least you’re not in Antarctica!

The V-Word: True Stories about First-Time Sex edited by Amber J. Keyser. Sometimes I read books because my friends write for them. Sometimes this goes well and other times it doesn’t. This time was one of the good ones. If every teenage girl got a copy of this book, the world would probably be a better place. (Ditto teenage boys.) The main goal of this collection of personal nonfiction is to show teenagers just how different that loss of virginity can be, how it looks for different kinds of people, and what it means for the rest of your life. There is everything from the unplanned casual fling to the serious and meticulously planned event. There is straight and gay and bi and trans. Plus there’s a great list of resources at the end, including sources of information on sex for teens and a bunch of YA books that address a variety of important issues.

What Belongs to You by Garth Greenwell is a slim debut novel by a poet that is full of lyrical prose and raw emotion. Usually when I hear that kind of description I think, meh. But this book does something I can’t quite explain. It’s so vulnerable and honest that it’s like seeing someone’s soul spilled out on paper. This book sat on my nightstand for a few months while I was stuck in a reading slump. I put it down because I knew that this novel needed the kind of attention I didn’t have yet. I waited, and while I waited I heard rave after rave about how this book is part of the new gay literary canon. And when I finally felt back to myself, I picked it up and I was happy to see that it was just as good as everyone said it was.

Coming Soon

Black Apple by Joan Crate (March 1) In Canada, the government and the Catholic church used to remove native children from their homes to be educated and civilized. This book looks at what that means for one Blackfoot girl and the nun running the school she is taken to against her will. It starts a little slow, but if you’re one of those people who likes to read books that show you a part of history you never knew, this is a great pick.

The Passenger by Lisa Lutz (March 1) Full disclosure, I haven’t read this one yet. But it’s on my to-read list as a long-time fan of Lisa Lutz, who wrote the hilarious Spelman mystery series. I hear lots and lots of good things about this thriller following a woman trying to hide off the grid.

The Travelers by Chris Pavone (March 8) Pavone wrote the popular and satisfying thrillers The Ex-Pats and The Accident and he specializes in normal people who aren’t actually so normal. This time it’s Will Rhodes, a travel writer who is blackmailed into a life of intrigue and must hide it from his wife.

Version Control by Dexter Palmer (February 23) Sometimes I know when a book will be on my Top 10 list before the book is even over. And this is one of those books. I love this book. I love it deeply. I love it so much I am considering reading it again. It hits me in all my sweet spots. A near-future setting following an unhappily married couple. She has a truly unique job for a dating company, he runs a physics lab that’s on the verge of a big discovery. I really don’t want to tell you more so I don’t spoil it. But I will say this book makes a great companion to last year’s popular Fates & Furies with a time travel twist.

Best Books of 2015

It was a good year. A really solid year. I am on my way to setting a new record for # of books read in a single year, so making a Best List presented a bigger challenge than usual. In the end, my Top 5 was relatively easy. Just like last year, I knew while I was reading them that they would be here. Sometimes you just know. I actually struggled the most with the rest of the list and I still feel guilty over all the books not included. 

My Top 5 are all pretty damn heavy, I won’t lie. That’s the kind of book that tends to affect me and settle down inside my bones. Honestly, it’s not until you get out of the top 10 that you’ll find lighter offerings because I naturally gravitate towards dark and complex books. With that said, 4 of my top 20 are absolutely delightful and heartwarming and wonderful, so I’m not fully gone. Promise. There really is something here for everyone. It’s been a really good year.

Beyond breaking these down into 1-5, 6-10, and 11-20, I couldn’t do any additional ranking so please take them in Alphabetical order within their chunk. These are only 2015 releases, I’ll cover a broader look at books in a later post.

Top 5

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. It should not be a surprise to see this in my Top 5. I read it in January and immediately declared it the best book I would read this year. Maybe someday I will have the strength to re-read it and see if I can cement it on my all-time list. I’ve been a huge advocate for it, and it’s always wonderful when you see a book you tell everyone to read get the kind of success this book has had. It is not your typical giant book, it is not your typical prizewinner, it is not trying to be cerebral, this book is just feelings, lots and lots of feelings, high melodrama. If horrible things happening to people is too much for you, you may want to skip it, because it turns the dial up to 11 on the horrific and the sublime. Friendship, trauma, healing, love, it’s all there.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. It is rare for nonfiction to show up at the top of my list, but this book is so important, so affecting, so unforgettable that it demands nothing else. Everything you’ve heard about it is true. It is not possible to over-hype this book because it delivers so thoroughly. It is wise and deep and speaks truths that we all need to hear about race in the US today.

Fifteen Dogs by Andre Alexis is probably the biggest underdog on this list (though it recently won a big Canadian prize, and I’m so happy for it!) though I think it has great mass appeal. The titular 15 dogs are given human consciousness, and that alone should be enough to get you hooked. This is one of those books that keeps you on the edge of your seat with a quick and fascinating plot, gets you all attached to its characters, and at the same time speaks volumes about what it means to be human. An amazing and underappreciated book that deserves your attention.

The Fishermen by Chigozie Obioma. After multiple Rioters talked it up, I finally picked up this book on audio. No one warned me. I wanted to listen to this book constantly but I also dreaded turning it on because I worried so much about what was going to happen next. It’s very hard to talk about it without spoiling, so I won’t add any more detail. Needless to say, this book about four brothers in Nigeria will leave you absolutely floored. We’re talking Shakespearean level drama. I cannot believe this is a debut novel. I also cannot get it out of my head.

The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante. This book gets a very unfair advantage since I read it shortly after devouring the three previous books in the Neapolitan series. So it gets to ride all my accrued love for those books and for the author, who writes under a pseudonym and whose real identity is unknown. I have probably recommended these books more than any others this year and I will keep doing it. Outside of book nerd land, I don’t know that Ferrante has caught on all the way, but you really should get on board. You will not regret it. These books are absolutely amazing, and like many of the other books on this list, they’re incredibly readable, piled high with plot, and have characters that you’ll never forget. 

 

6-10

Daughters Unto Devils by Amy Lukavics. Don’t underestimate Young Adult novels. This YA horror is one of the most frightening, creepy books I have ever read. It is scarier than most adult horror. It is a masterclass in horror. It’s basically a kind of Little House on the Prairie meets Rosemary’s Baby, with a family living on the frontier, literally getting cabin fever, possibly being haunted by demons, etc. Just read it. But maybe not at night.

In the Country by Mia Alvar. A short story collection on my top 10! Will wonders never cease? I read some great story collections this year, but this one is by far my favorite. There is not a weak one in the bunch and it’s so full of emotion. Many of the stories have that classic short story moral dilemma, but there is so much complexity in each brief tale. The stories are about Filipino families, those living in the Philippines and those who have emigrated to the US or to the Middle East. These are not the kinds of stories you get to hear very often, and that’s exactly why you should read it. (Also because the writing is so good I can’t even.)

The Library at Mount Char by Scott Hawkins. Another one I picked up based on Rioter buzz. I tend to be cautious about Fantasy,  but this really isn’t Fantasy as much as it is every single genre all together. This book is stuffed to the gills with mythology and surrealism and horror and everything else you can possibly think of. And yet it works. It works beautifully. There is high and low, beautiful and horrible. But there’s also cops and ghosts and reincarnation and swat teams and pretty much anything else you can think of. This book will blow your mind in the best way.

More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera. When I read this YA novel, I really liked it. But then something happened. I couldn’t shake it. It stayed in my head. It did not leave. And it remains the one that I come back to in a year where I read some incredibly strong YA. This book will give you so many feelings. Aaron is a poor brown kid in the projects. Thomas is his new friend. And as they become inseparable you start to wonder, “Is Thomas maybe…” and then I will not spoil a thing. But this is a great book dealing with identity, LGBT youth, and much, much more. 

The Whites by Richard Price (writing as Harry Brandt). I love me some Richard Price. He’s one of the best crime writers we have, arguably the best. And this book was his attempt to write something lighter, faster, and more pulpy. It didn’t work. It became a Richard Price book, sprawling and epic, yet intimate and tight, showing crime from a variety of different angles. The parallel narratives are particularly strong, one of his best, and his best is really, really good.

 

11-20 

Dumplin’by Julie Murphy. I read it in a frenzy and immediately told most of my friends who read a lot of YA to read it immediately. Dumplin’ is a contemporary YA with a lot of what you’d expect: struggles with friends, with family, with romance, with identity. What separates it is a heroine with a vibrant voice who also happens to be fat. She knows she’s fat, she knows how other people look at her, and she loves herself anyway. Being in the presence of Willowdean is a joy.

Eden West by Pete Haumann. I’d never read Haumann before, but after this book I looked into him and wasn’t surprised to learn that he’d written one of the seminal YA novels on religion and faith. Eden West is also about those topics, and honestly I think it can be marketed just as easily to adult as teen audiences, I don’t really know where I’d personally categorize it. The story follows a young man growing up in a cult whose life is changed when he meets a local girl while he’s walking their borders. There are lots of cult stories. It’s kind of a thing. I read at least 3 just this year. This one had so much truth and it’s rare to find a book that can respect its character’s faith in something that is objectively terrible to an outsider.

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. It’s one of the big books of the year, you’ve probably seen it and heard about it by now. It’s a book that demands discussion, and I found it incredibly intriguing and interesting. I love books that mess with your expectations and this one completely does. It’s an exercise in structure and character that is also incredibly satisfying, a rare combination. A warning: you have to give this book more time than you usually would. You’ve got to get at least halfway before you really know what you’re getting into.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. I don’t read a lot of happy books, as I mentioned. Kitchens is a book that manages to be happy AND hit my dark and complex sweet spot. It’s one of those books of connected stories, a difficult task, but one Stradahl does better than anyone I can remember off hand. All his characters feel real. And reading his book reminds you how heavy our modern fiction is with city people, how rarely we depict the people who make up most of our country. It’s also great for all you foodies out there.

The Sellout by Paul Beatty is a dark, biting satire dealing primarily with race. Even when it seems fun or jaunty, there’s always some wise darkness just around the corner. You cannot relax with this book. It does not let you get comfortable. It makes you judge characters then makes you anxious about judging them. It is some of the strongest satire I’ve seen in years and we really need more books like this in the world.

Simon vs. the Homo Sapiens Agenda by Becky Albertalli. I often read a book not knowing the author’s name due to the formatting on electronic galleys. I was convinced this book was written by a young gay man, one who’d recently been to high school and lived through these kinds of experiences. But no, Becky Albertalli was never a teenage boy. How she creates Simon and makes him so full I don’t know, but I’d love to ask. This is straight up contemporary YA, but it’s so perfectly done that it should be a model for the genre.

Sorcerer to the Crown by Zen Cho. The canon has a problem. It’s all white authors and white characters. And then you get into genre fiction and you find the legacy continuing despite the world having changed. Fantasy, science-fiction, historical fiction, it can be hard to find books by authors of color with characters of color. Luckily now you have this book, which is kind of like if Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell was a lot less brooding and had a lot less white people. So basically, it’s AWESOME. It’s also hella feminist (another problem you run into) and witty and delightful and really, why haven’t you read it yet? (I don’t even like Fantasy and I totally dug it.)

Unfinished Business by Anne-Marie Slaughter. The only book on work-life balance I have ever liked. The only one I’ve ever read where I nodded my head and said, “Yes, yes, this is exactly it.” I hate the articles, the panels, the same discussions over and over again without anyone saying what the real problem is and what most people face every day. I just want to get rid of everyone talking about these issues and instead have us all read this book. Give it to your boss, give it to your company’s CEO, give it to the working women and men in your life. It needs to be read.

Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson. At first you think this book is about being that kid who never fit in in a small Southern town and going to college and finding your people. But that’s just the intro. This book has much more to say and it’s not going to beat around the bush. It’s going to give you crazy plot twists, commentary on race and media, and a distinctive voice that stays with you. Amazing stuff, perhaps the book I’ve read that most reminds me of Junot Diaz’s Oscar Wao.

 

Honorable Mentions

A God in Ruinsby Kate Atkinson. A companion of sorts to Life After Life, but I liked it better. Gutsy and ambitious.

Idyll Threatsl by Stephanie Gayle. Fantastic new mystery series about a closeted cop who moves to a small town.

Lost Canyonby Nina Revoyr. Deliverance for the modern age, this time featuring more than just white guys!

Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf. His last, slim novel is beautiful and still and utterly affecting.

Speakby Louisa Hall. What is intelligence and consciousness and connection? A book with a lot to think about.

 

Fall Books!

I keep procrastinating this post because I am still not done reading many of the big Fall Releases. But September is almost over and I really can’t put it off forever. They’re coming out right and left and best to have it done.

Fall is basically the season of heavy hitters in the book world, with most of the big guys coming out in September. It’s kind of like how all the big Oscar movies tend to come out in December. There are still light, fun books in Fall and there are plenty of big, literary books the rest of the year, but there’s definitely a concentration. Here’s a roundup of some of my favorites of the Fall Releases for 2015, links are to Amazon and all are affiliate links. 

Literary Fiction

These are the books I get asked about the most because they get a lot of press, a lot of attention, and the gap between the critical reception and the real-world reception can be pretty wide. I tend to take a common-sense approach to literary fiction, when possible.

Fates and Furies seems to be getting the most buzz, if we focus on the book instead of the author. It’s not a surprise once you’ve read the book. This is a book that has a lot to say about the novel. It’s an exercise in structure. The first half of the book can even be read as satire in retrospect. Yeah, all this sounds really dull, doesn’t it? I admit, I was halfway through thinking, “Do I really want to finish this?” and I only pushed forward because I had so many friends who enjoyed it so much. I’m glad I did, turns out I enjoyed the second half like crazy. All that said, having to commit to over 200 pages before you know if you really like a book is a tall order. But if you’re looking for something that’s basically a fancy, cerebral Gone Girl, you should consider it. 

If we’re talking about author buzz, then the award clearly goes to Franzen. His new novel, Purity, is interesting, a fast read, a page-turner, a domestic drama with an international lens. A book that manages to be about the East German underground, a Julian-Assange-like internet lord, and a rather dull twenty-something girl with a crazy mother who lives in a co-op in San Francisco at a dead-end job. This is Franzen, so it bounces between overly-brainy descriptions and genre-worthy plot twists. But if you’ve enjoyed either of his previous novels it’s worth a look. And I’m just going to leave it there.

There’s a new Margaret Atwood out this month! And it is… well it’s not normal. Atwood has been doing her own thing for several years now, experimenting and mashing genres and doing whatever it is she feels like. Respect. And this book perhaps expresses that better than any of her previous ones. The Heart Goes Last is just plain weird, a book that almost feels like someone dared her to mix 5 different Cards Against Humanity cards into her plot. But it works. It’s dystopian and has plenty to say about marriage, adultery, planned community, sex, obsession, and a lot more. There are sex dolls, Elvis impersonators, prisons, roving gangs, a huge financial crisis, and plenty more. Personally, I dig novels where I have absolutely no idea what’s going to happen next. But if you don’t like it when a book colors outside the lines, this one probably won’t be right for you.

There’s a new story collection by Adam Johnson, the recent Pulitzer winner for The Orphan-Master’s Son. It’s called Fortune Smiles and the title is used ironically. It’s depressing and heavy and really interesting. He’s got particularly interesting things to say about marriage and relationships that really stuck in my brain. There’s a new novel by Salman Rushdie, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights, which includes a few thousand years of history, a jinn who marries a human, and a gardener who looks down one day to find he’s floating a few inches above the ground all the time. Like many of Rushdie’s recent novels, this isn’t one you can read in a fury, but it’s constantly smart. David Mitchell has a new novella that’s set in the universe of The Bone Clocks called Slade House which I didn’t love, but then again I’ve liked The Bone Clocks less and less as time passes. And there’s a debut novel from essayist Sloane Crosley which I also didn’t love, but I fully acknowledge that this book hit several of my totally subjective personal pet peeves (books about young rich people, 20-somethings struggling to find their place in the world, people making ridiculous choices that would destroy them if they weren’t in a novel, etc.) but I know many others who enjoyed it. 

Genre Novels

Genre = mystery, romance, sci-fi, etc. All those books that get grouped in some category based on their plot. There’s a bunch of great ones so I’d hate to focus too heavily on the literary stuff.

Sorcerer to the Crown is a fantasy novel and I am not a fantasy reader. But a fellow non-fantasy reader recommended it and I figured I’d try and holy cats, it is amazing. A kickass novel that reminded me more of J. K. Rowling’s light and agile wit than any other book I’ve read. Set in an alternate-universe 1800’s Britain where magic exists but most “magicians” are just rich dudes who use it as an excuse to make their own club. The Sorcerer Royal, whom no one cares for much, is Zacharias, a freed slave whose birth and skin color separate him from everyone around him. Then there’s Prunella, the orphaned girl whose parentage is unknown except that there’s clearly something “not British” in there, who’s been taken in by the proprietress of a girls’ magical boarding school and finds herself suddenly ousted upon reaching adulthood. Prunella and Zacharias cross paths, of course, and there’s a quest to save England from its quickly depleting supply of magic, and that’s just the beginning of this delightful book. I honestly can’t recommend it enough. 

Getting into more of my usual stuff, my favorite thriller of the fall is Idyll Threats by Stephanie Gayle. Set about 10 years ago in a small Connecticut town, it’s about Thomas Lynch, a former NYPD cop who’s left the big city for a job as a small town sheriff after his partner dies. Oh, and he’s gay and closeted. Lynch lives a secret life on his own and then goes to work every day to a police force that eyes him with suspicion and disdain. A quick tryst one night seems uneventful, until he realizes that he was one of the last people to see a murder victim alive… and he can’t tell anyone. It’s a well-plotted book, heavy on character, and the first in a series. I am 100% on board, one of my favorite mysteries of the year.

There’s a new Karin Slaughter novel, and if you know Slaughter you know her books aren’t for the faint of heart. She has no problems finding plots from the darkest places in people’s lives. Pretty Girls starts out pretty normal: well-off woman’s husband is murdered in a robbery gone wrong, woman finds that husband was keeping secrets. But it gets pretty heavy pretty fast. I don’t want to spoil it, so if you’re considering it but are wondering if it’s too icky for you, you can see the spoiler in my Goodreads review (you have to click to open, the rest of you are safe). It is fast fast fast, Slaughter is getting better and better, in my humble opinion, and her recent standalone novels have all been incredibly strong and worthy of the title “thriller.”

Young Adult

Two of my favorite YA’s of the year are both September releases. First there’s Dumplin’ by Julie Murphy, which has had a pretty joyous and enthusiastic reception, and it deserves every bit of it. This is a joyous and enthusiastic book that is so full of feel-good that I’d happily put it in the hands of every teenage girl out there. Willowdean is fat. There’s no tiptoeing around it. And pretty much everything in Will’s life is going kind of crazy. She has a new secret boyfriend who won’t be seen with her in public. Her best friend, the beautiful and skinny Ellen, seems to be moving farther away from her. Her mom, who’s run the city beauty pageant since she won it decades earlier, just can’t understand how Will can be fat and happy with herself at the same time. Will is strong and full of sass, a girl who pulls her inspiration from Dolly Parton. It’s a fun read, an inspiring and funny book, one that gets you thinking about body image and just plain bodies. 

I was kind of done with all the Sherlock knockoffs, but I picked up Lock & Mori by Heather W. Perry because this time Moriarty is a girl and I thought I’d be interested to see where the book took that. It took it to a very, very good place. Lock & Mori are teenagers in modern-day London, kids from very different backgrounds, who are drawn to each other due in large part to their shared brilliance. There is a murder, of course. But this is not a book where Sherlock gets to be the big hero. Mori is the narrator and she knows more about what happened than she’s willing to tell Lock, even when things start getting serious between the two of them. I tend not to really dig YA mystery, but this novel totally delivered. The will-they-won’t-they-will-they-stay-together of the teenage romance plus a serious mystery plus a heroine with some serious baggage = Jess is very happy.

There’s a few more YA that I’m saving for my upcoming horror post in October, so hold tight on those.

Nonfiction

Yes, I have been reading nonfiction, as hard as it is to believe.

I am a sucker for a medical memoir, so reading Black Man in a White Coat was a no-brainer. Damon Tweedy’s book isn’t just a reflection on his life in training and practice, but a look at how different racial issues play out in medicine. A black doctor-in-training surrounded almost entirely by white trainees and doctors, attending Duke where much of the population is black and poor, Tweedy finds racism in expected and unexpected places. Then there’s issues that go beyond blatant racism, like the treatment gap between the poor blacks and the well-off whites; and the medical issues that disproportionately affect the black community (including Tweedy and his relatives). Tweedy has no agenda. He doesn’t get political. He also borrows freely from other memoirs by doctors of color (yes, including Ben Carson) to show that a problem can be systemic or isolated. It’s a book with heart but that is determined to stay scientific. If there’s someone you’d like to talk about race with but you think they’re not ready for Ta-Nehisi Coates, Tweedy’s memoir is a great, thought-provoking choice.

I started reading Symphony for the City of the Dead by M. T. Anderson not actually realizing it was nonfiction. Anderson wrote several novels I love, including the Octavian Nothing books which I find positively swoon-worthy, if those books were a person I would consider marrying them. The new book is about the composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the siege of Leningrad. I won’t lie, I am not done with this book yet. I’ve been reading it for a month now. Because the siege of Leningrad is DEPRESSING, YO, and I have to take breaks from the horrors of it. I’ve read my fair share of depressing holocaust books, both fiction and nonfiction, but this book is right up there with them in terms of horrors and crimes against humanity. This is technically a nonfiction book for young adults, but honestly I can’t tell. It is easy to read, but it’s no cake walk. It will be a challenging read for a teen, but I don’t see why a teen couldn’t read it. And I see no reason why adults can’t read it. 

I’m also in the middle of a book of essays right now: Me, My Hair, and I: Twenty-seven Women Untangle an Obsession, edited by Elizabeth Benedict. There are some truly amazing essays in here, and if you are a curly girl like me, or someone who hasn’t quite made peace with her hair yet, you need to read this book. I just finished an essay by Deborah Tannen about why mothers are always so interested in their daughters’ hair that was insanely good and everyone should read right now. (Teaser: here’s another essay she wrote about how a woman’s appearance is “marked” in a way a man’s isn’t.) A lot of the essays share a theme of accepting your hair after fighting against it and if you need to hear that, you should probably read it. But anyone will find a lot to ponder, man we all have stories about our hair, it’s fascinating to pick that apart.

There’s more I haven’t gotten to yet, Anne-Marie Slaughter’s new book, Unfinished Business, is sitting next to my bed. (Updated to add I started this last night and OMG I think this may be the best book on work-life balance ever. I’m only through Part I but I am just full of praise-hands-emoji for everything Slaughter says.) But pretty soon it’ll be time to move on to 2016 reads and 2015 reading wrap-ups and holy cow, how did we get here?

How’s your fall reading going? Any big new books on your hold list or on your bedside table?

Spring & Summer Favorite Books

In my drafts folder right now is my write up of the Big Fall Books, which is a thing in the publishing world. But before I finished that, I realized I had to talk about some of my favorite summer books that I haven’t said as much about. I hadn’t realized I’d left out a whole bunch of books since my recent posts weren’t based on release date the way I normally do. So I missed a bunch that are fantastic or that I read after their release dates. (I’m playing catchup a lot these days.) Here’s some of the highlights from Spring & Summer to get from the library or hopefully still on the discounted new release shelf.

As usual, links in this post are Amazon affiliate links.

Top Picks

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal. If there’s a book that I’ve been a big evangelist for recently, it’s this one. It had good buzz but I was worried about the title, it sounded like a light little ladies’ book. It’s not. It’s a book all about food and people who love food. And even more specifically than that, moments in your life where a meal or a dish has some kind of impact on you. While the central figure of this smart and lovely novel is up-and-coming chef Eva Thorvald (in Minnesota/Iowa/the surrounding areas, of course), she is the protagonist of only one chapter. Each one finds a different character in crisis, in a moment of decision, at a crossroads of their life. And the book dances through these scenes with agility, grace, and depth. It’s a real joy to read, one of those novels with a thrill that you just can’t impart to other people, you just have to tell them, “Read it, you should just read it.” (Bonus: it has recipes sprinkled throughout the story.)

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. In the book world, this has been heavily hyped. But I know that the book world isn’t always overlapping with the rest of the world. So in case you missed it, this is the most important book of the year. That isn’t an exaggeration. Believe me, I heard so much hype about this book and I’m very skeptical of hype. But it is everything everyone says it is and more. I listened to the audiobook, read by the author, but I also wanted another copy, a paper copy, that I could hold in my hands, that I could underline and highlight and write notes on. Coates, who is well-known for his incisive essays at The Atlantic here writes a long message to his son about race and what the American Dream really is. It leaves you changed.

Adventure

The Ambassador’s Wife by Jennifer Steil is already being turned into a mini-series starring Anne Hathaway, so you’d better read it soon or else you won’t read the book first and we all know it’s better if you read the book first. You can see why she chose this part in this book when you read it. Miranda is an artist and free spirit, but her life changes drastically after she falls in love with the British Ambassador to a (fictional) Middle Eastern country. No longer living as she pleases but under guard, things are very different. But this drama turns much more dramatic when Miranda is kidnapped, held hostage, and forced to find away to stay alive in the most dire circumstances. An interesting novel with an interesting main character. 

Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr stuck in my head like nobody’s business. A book I’d heard nothing about from an indie press I didn’t know, it was a pageturner that I developed a full-on addiction to. I pitch it as a modern Deliverance that adds gender, race, and class into the mix. Not just a study of testosterone under pressure, but a look at how we look at each other and how we push our limits. Gwen, Oscar, and Todd don’t know each other but they all know Tracy, their tough-as-nails trainer who invites them on a grueling hike. Things don’t go as planned. But well before you’re in nailbiting territory, this book gets you in the thick of these people’s lives, their goals, their broken dreams. They should really make this one into a movie, too.

Magical Realism/Fantasy

Hugo & Rose by Bridget Foley is not the first book I read by an author I actually knew. And fortunately, it joins the group of books by someone I know that were really good. The thing is, that when you know the author you read with a sense of anxiety that you won’t like it and you’ll have to pretend you like it or find something nice to say about it when you can’t think of anything. Thankfully Bridget killed it. I’d love to hear this one in a book club, it has so much of the truth of that mother drudgery of life at home with small children. But Rose escapes that life every night when she closes her eyes and dreams of Hugo and the Island they’ve explored together since they were little. And then one day Rose sees someone in her waking life who is Hugo but isn’t and from there it’s a steadily growing twisty-turny plot until a huge climax. Do not be fooled by the sweet cover. There are real stakes in this book, the likes of which you rarely get in a story about a suburban stay-at-home mom. And the magical realism element gives it a fantasy twist. 

Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir. I don’t read a lot of fantasy. I read hardly any capital-F Fantasy, instead sticking closer to magical realism in literary fiction. But I heard enough people say this book was good to give it a try. A Young Adult novel, the first in a series, it actually held my attention instead of putting me to sleep. A dystopia with lots of worldbuilding, an evil empire, a rebel force, a school for soldiers, and a spy servant, there’s a whole lot going on but it works well. It took me a little while to really get into it, but I’m now super curious about where this book is going next. 

Speak by Louisa Hall is a good one to go to if you got into Alan Turing after The Theory of Everything. Turing is a hot commodity lately and this book is just so intelligent and so fascinating that it’s worthy of having him as one of its main characters. This is one of those multiple narrative books that covers a span of hundreds of years, from the diary of a teenage girl on a ship to America in the 1600’s to the last thoughts of a robot that’s been shipped off to a warehouse where its batteries will slowly deplete, it follows scientists and non-scientists through journeys of communication and human thought. It is about robots and what it means to be human, it’s about how we think and how we communicate and what really matters in our lives. 

Thrillers

Smaller and Smaller Circles by F. H. Batacan. I love reading international crime novels, and Asian crime novels tend to be my favorite. This book is a huge hit in the Phillippines, and we have only the tiniest bit of Filipino literature in translation here in the US, so I was very excited to read this book. It’s absolutely a knockout, a well-plotted thriller with excellent characters. The unlikely detective is Father Gus Saenz, a priest who also happens to be a forensic anthropologist. Both local and national law enforcement are corrupt and suspect, so when Saenz is brought in to consult on a series of murders of young boys in a massive dump site, he can’t trust anyone in power. Batacan also gives us Payatas in great detail, the 50-acre dump that supports a huge community of impoverished people who pick through it to survive. A serial killer novel with a setting you definitely haven’t seen before, fully-drawn characters, and a worthy plot.

The Night Sister by Jennifer McMahon finishes up the list. McMahon is one of those authors whose books I kept reading over and over again even though they never quite did it for me. She’s a master of page-turning but I almost always found the climax unworthy of the buildup. Until recently. Something changed with her previous novel, The Winter People. She’s shifted to supernatural and horror instead of the straight thriller or crime novel and it’s a change that suits her talent well. The Night Sister is really, really creepy and lets McMahon do what she does best: take you on a serious ride. Set in an abandoned motel, Amy has just brutally killed her family. Piper and Margot, her childhood friends, know secrets about the motel they promised they would keep, but if they’re going to stay alive they may have to break their promise. *insert creepy music* 

 

Favorites from Spring/Summer that you’d like to share?