My book club is just starting out and we’re more than a bit confused about what books to choose. We see lists of “great book club books” everywhere. But what does that mean? I read in some of your reviews that you refer to certain books as being “discussable”—but why? What makes one book more discussable than another?
Book Bewildered in Buffalo
What serendipity! Just a couple of weekends ago, I spoke to a group of WNBAers (Women’s National Book Association, not Basketball…) about what characteristics book clubs look for when selecting their group reads.
Of course, every book club is different. In fact some clubs read only one genre. If you can name a genre, there’s probably a book club out there reading only that—such as Mystery, Romance, Faith-based, Speculative Fiction or even Southern Apocalyptic Zombie Erotica. OK, I made up that last one, but you get my point… But more mainstream book clubs have found success in following the CAMEL rule. Note that all books will not have all of these qualities, but the more they have, the better the potential for an interesting discussion with your reading group. (So be sure to pick up more wine—your gals are going to be talking late into the night.)
CAMEL – Characteristics of Books that Generate Great Discussions
C – Complex Characters:
- Well-rounded, 3-D characters – They don’t have to be likable, but they MUST be interesting and/or relatable. (Think Scarlett O’Hara in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind or Framboise Simon in Joanne Harris’s Five Quarters of the Orange.)
- Character Development – Your protagonist should develop in the book as she responds to a challenge and makes difficult choices—such as Mary Sutter in Robin Oliveira’s My Name is Mary Sutter, or Ernest Pettigrew in Helen Simonson’s Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand.
A – Ambiguity:
- Character’s motivations or actions – There is probably no better conversation than, “What was he thinking?” or “Why do you think she did what she did?”
- Moral ambiguity in a topic or theme – Can you see both sides, or do you believe that one side is definitely right or wrong? And why?
- Unreliable Narrator – When you cannot trust what you are being told, what are you to think? Whether it’s due to personal bias, ignorance or mental instability, this kind of narrator can really leave you wondering…When Holden Caulfield (from J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye) tells us he’s “the most terrific liar you ever saw” you’re rather left to your own devices to figure out what you want to believe is true. Pi Patel’s marvelously colorful story (Yann Martel’s Life of Pi) is another wonderful example that keeps you pondering the possibilities…
- Ending – When all plot lines are not tied up in a neat little bow, your group can have a great exchange about what they think might’ve happened. “What If” speculation is a great conversation spark. Carolyn Turgeon’s Godmother: The Secret Cinderella Story a great example—my neighborhood book club went into double-overtime talking about this ending. And isn’t that what we loved about The Giver by Lois Lowry?
M – Meaty Issues:
- Social Problems – Such as alcoholism, class conflict, and racism. (Think, James McBride’s The Color of Water or Kathryn Stockett’s The Help.)
- Controversial topics – Like censorship, death and depression. For example, Pat Conroy’s Prince of Tides or JK Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy.
- Relevant to current events – For instance domestic violence, feminism, and homosexuality. Robert Leleux’s Memoirs of a Beautiful Boy and Jeanette Winterson’s Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal are a good cases in point.
- Timely or timeless themes – Such as good and evil; love and relationships; inclusion and belonging, and coming of age. While Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird is the classic benchmark for the later, Markus Zusak’s The Book Thief is a more current illustration (pun intended.)
The heavier the issue, the more heated the dialogue can get, so you must remember that everyone is entitled to her own opinion, and at some point you may just have to agree to disagree. But when members can debate respectfully, it’s all good…
E -Exceptional Setting:
- Other Countries and/or Cultures – When you can see the world through your reading, not only do you learn something new about another culture, but you also learn something new about yourself and how you react to the “otherness.” Discussing the differences as well as the similarities always makes for a fascinating conversation! For example, you’ll discover much about ‘the lost boys’ of Africa from Dave Eggers’s What is the What, while Jung Chang’s Wild Swans doesn’t just inform you on Chinese culture—but three generations of that culture from Imperial to Communist—giving you tons to talk about!
- Unfamiliar time period – I learn more about history through reading historical fiction than I ever learned in history class. Think how much you found out about The Depression by reading Red’s point of view in Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit or about slavery from Handful’s perspective in Sue Monk Kidd’s The Invention of Wings. Living vicariously through your protagonist gives you more of a stake in the plot. Time travel by way of books can be not only educational—with no flux capacitors needed—but also quite an enjoyable experience. Compare those discoveries in your club chat.
L – Language:
- Beautiful Prose – We all can remember passages that caused us to catch our breath and required us to back up to re-read and savor the words. (I can distinctly remember not being able to get very far reading Charles Frazier’s Cold Mountain or David Guterson’s Snow Falling on Cedars without stopping a zillion times to re-read entire paragraphs.) Encourage your fellow group members to note favorite passages so they can share them with the group at your meeting.
- Interesting literary devises – These could be anything we find clever such as changing Point of View, use of foreshadowing, reoccurring themes—and one of my favorites: effective use of comic relief or humor. I recently read one of my favorite passages of humor from Jeanine Cummins’s The Crooked Branch aloud to my neighborhood book club buddies: “…They told me I was brave and I was doing a great job. I didn’t have much choice. I squeezed my eyes shut so that my eyeballs wouldn’t spring free of my head. My baby would be born, and during the big, beautiful moment of arrival, it (he, she) would get hit in the head with my runaway eyeball. An inauspicious greeting.
‘Welcome to the world, baby!’ PING! ‘Oh, don’t mind that, sweetie—no, no, don’t cry. It’s just Mommy’s eyeball’.” Comic genius!
- Fresh plotting – Reading groups avoid anything formulaic. There’s nothing worse than feeling as though you’ve read this story before—and only the names have changed. This is one reason that many book clubs eschew your boiler-plate Mysteries or Romance. Once you know how it ends, what’s there to talk about? Of course Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl and William Landay’s Defending Jacob break these molds as there is so much more than plot to discuss—pretty much all the CAMELs above! Also, more literary mysteries such as Jacqueline Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series don’t follow the typically prescribed standards for a mystery and generate rich conversations.
Caveats: Of course, the CAMEL characteristics alone cannot ensure a good discussion for your book club. You must also ensure that your group changes up their reading often. You may think that three books in a row with a Chinese theme might be interesting from a ‘compare and contrast’ perspective, but many groups I coach have been driven to boredom by such strategies. Trying to achieve ‘book balance’ throughout your reading year is a much better approach.
In addition to ‘discussable’ books and a variety of selections, you should also tap a skilled facilitator to keep your discussion on track, build a group of people who feel safe discussing personal reactions to what they’ve read—and some would also say, ‘serve good food’. (I would argue ‘pour good wine’—but that’s just me.)
Your CAMEL need not pass through the eye of a needle, nor must you walk a mile for one… But following the CAMEL rules will help you and your book club choose more discussable books. Come to think of it, walking is very good for us, and it does help to counter-act our beloved but sedentary hobby of reading. So—what the heck—go ahead and walk a mile (or two) for your CAMEL! You can then laze on the couch with your compelling book club selection without any guilt, whatsoever.
Book Club Cheerleader’s Top 10 Book Club Books of 2013
Book Club Cheerleader’s Top 10 Book Club Books of 2012
Favorite Book Group Reads of 2013 by Reading Group Guides.com
LitLovers Guides—Top 50 Book Club Books
Top Book Club Picks of 2013 by Book Movement
As the saying goes, “So many books, so little time…”
I actually got off fairly light at Pulpwood Queens this year, having already read many of the key books (see previous post about those…) Even this photo includes a couple of books I picked up in hard-copy having already listened to them: Calling Me Home by Julie Kibler & Writers Between the Covers by Shannon McKenna Schmidt and Joni Rendon. Some books you just can’t get enough of…
But on to my new selections and what others have to say about them:
“The Lake House is a richly textured novel about love, friendship and second chances that spans generations. Marci Nault’s writing is as uplifting and sparkling as a fresh water lake in summer. Nault is a writer to watch!”
“True stories of the adventurous women who worked on the top-secret Manhattan Project, producing uranium for the first atomic bomb, which helped the U.S. end World War II.”
—O, The Oprah Magazine
“As rumors swirl about political corruption, an NYC judge disappears in 1930 without a trace. Caught in the scandal are his wife and showgirl mistress – plus his dutiful maid, whose detective husband is investigating the case. Inspired by a real-life unsolved mystery, this mesmerizing novel features characters that make a lasting impression.”
“Lucky you! You’re about to succumb to France’s most irresistible writer! At the end of this delicious, tender, funny, heartwarming novel, you’ll feel as if Iris and Josephine are part of your family.”
“What a fun read! The characters of Horseshoe are anything but ordinary. I enjoyed the story-in-novel style of the book, which made reading it move quickly, although I was sad when I finished it. I wanted more! I look forward to reading more of Torgerson’s work in the future.”
—Susan Marquez, Amazon Reviewer
“…King’s latest novel takes inspiration from Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca, keeping the best of the latter’s atmospheric tension without falling into melodramatic cliché…A suspenseful Gothic that gives a nod to its predecessors while still being fresh.”
“When a book enriches your mind, opens your heart, and inspires your spirit, it is a real treasure, and this treasure is just what Gloria Loring offers us in her powerful and uplifting new autobiography. Written with wisdom and depth, and saturated with grace, this remarkable book takes the reader on a journey overflowing with revelation and profound awakening.”
—Dr. Barbara De Angelis, transformational teacher,
#1 New York Times bestselling author of How Did I Get Here?
And last but not least,
“Casey’s vivid writing and dogged research establish her as one of the very best true crime writers in the business.”
What’s up next on my TBR list? I’m thinkin’… The Wife, The Maid, and The Mistress… I love Historical Fiction—and can’t wait to see what Ariel has cooked up for us!
What’s next on your TBR list?
It’s not just the great authors. It’s not just the wonderful books. It’s not just the magnificent parties. It’s the WHOLE splendid, synergistic experience at Pulpwood Queens Girlfriends Weekend (PWQ GFWE)!
There’s nowhere else I know of where—in one weekend—you can:
9) Do the Bunny-hop with an actual Bunny. (Or at least the bunny body—or the bunny head…) My BFF Jan Ward calls it “tribal dancing”. My Jenny Craig consultant calls it “great exercise”. My husband calls it “letting your hair down”. I call it “dancing like no one is watching.” The bunny costume came to the party donned by PWQ Brandi Pound, but the head portion was later seen out on the dance floor atop author Karen Harrington. However, let me assure you, NO animals were hurt in the performance of this bunny hop!
8) Be a Bond Girl (or Show girl, or Egyptian, or Holly Golightly …) You may know that I have a thing for costumes… So every year I am so excited getting ready for the theme parties at PWQ GFWE! Thursday night’s theme was “Vegas in the 50’s”, Friday night ‘s was “Elvis in the 60’s” and Saturday night was “Viva Las Vegas, Baby!” and my group’s costume was The Bond Girls from the Ian Fleming’s Vegas-set book, Diamonds are Forever . Being Bond Girls was especially nice because by designing our own costumes, we didn’t have to wear bikini’s… (as if I have since 7th grade…) But it still felt super-glamorous!
7) Win a diamond (decorating contest.) In addition to the costumes, each group decorates a table on Saturday night for the annual “Great Big Ball of Hair Ball.” (Yes, Kathy Murphy, the PWQ founder lives a double-life as a hair stylist…) And this year, The Bond Girls won with our Diamonds are Forever table! Not only did the table (and adjacent fireplace) drip with diamonds, jewels, and lights, but we also had our own life-sized 007 standee which afforded a popular posing prop!
6) Watch a woman get arrest on “Viva Las Vegas, Baby” night. After all, it wouldn’t really be Vegas, if no one got arrested, right? (And Kathy Murphy is a real stickler for authenticity…) So, although the poor little silver-haired woman was handcuffed very early in the evening, I later got a picture of these two Vegas ‘tourists’ who seem to have come straight from the slammer!
5) Be served dinner by world-class authors. Not only do you have the likes of Melanie Benjamin, Cassandra King and Katherine Pancol handing you your dinner plate and fetching your sweet tea, but Gloria Loring (daytime soap queen, Top 40’s singing artist, and lately famous for being the mother of Robin Thicke) jumped behind the counter when the line stalled, rolled up her designer-dress sleeves, and helped the caterers load BBQ onto the plates. Now, that’s what I call service!
4) Stay at the best B&B in the US. (I say this only because I’ve never stayed at a B&B outside the US, so I really couldn’t compare beyond our national borders…) Innkeepers Tammy and David Doriot of the White Oak Manor B&B spoiled me from the moment I walked in the door. No, I take that back—it started way before when they allowed me to store some items at their home weeks ahead of time, and then emailed me the day of my arrival to inquire whether I preferred red or white wine. (BTW, it’s always Chardonnay…) The beautiful rooms were appointed with every single amenity a traveler could want—from the lush spa robes to the quite convenient fridge full of sodas—and the pièce de résistance—a plate of homemade chocolate cookies. I did have to share the latter with some of the Bond Girls, but what are friends for… Oh, and I probably gained 10 pounds in 3 days just eating David’s scrumptious (but gigantor) gourmet breakfasts! Thanks so much, Tammy and Dave!
3) Be treated like royalty in Jefferson, Texas. “Are y’all with Kathy’s group?” the salesperson asked. After hearing an affirmative response, she continued, “Great, Honey. Then you get a 20% discount. Oh, and hep yourself to a little ol’ Victorian calendar over yonder, while you’re browsin’.” And in another local establishment, “Did y’all get a free taste of our pecan pralines?” (I’ve never been known to pass up a taste of any dessert that began with the word, “pecan”, free or not…)
But, then, I started thinking, “Well, I guess I AM royalty, after all, I’m a Pulpwood Queen!”
2) Party with some of the nicest readers in the world. I guess when you meet people who love to read (and party) like you do, you’re bound to make some great friends. So here’s where I’d like to give a shout out to some of the kindest, book-lovingest, party-hearty gals I know—and whom I look forward to seeing every year: First there’s my Vanden High School BFF Jan Ward who’s my Chardonnay-drinking, chocolate cookie-eating roomie and late night story-teller; Kay Huck, Head Queen of the PWQ of Southwest Louisiana, a great blogger and a wonderful Texas Two Step teacher; Lisa Hodgson, Head Queen of the PWQ of Bristol, Virginia, who sported an elephant head a few years ago as grand as Brandi’s bunny one, and she makes a wonderful Vegas ‘tourist’, as well; and Brandi Pound and Rhonda Cates who devise some of the most creative costumes ever—and are awesome dancers! (But, I still really missed Christi Borden and the gals from Katy, TX this year—hope y’all are back next year…)
And I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a huge Thank You to Kathy Murphy who started this little clam bake 14 years ago, and no matter how dramatic (or traumatic) the life curves that get thrown her way become, she always reinvents herself and keeps pushing ahead. You know all those characters we admire in books— who overcome adversity and just keep moving forward? Kat is like their poster child—just with really great hair…
1) Be just so blessed. Now, I’m always saying I live a blessed, charmed life—I’m (relatively) healthy, I get to read a lot of great books, and coach some fabulous book clubs. I travel to cool places (like Jefferson, Texas) and I’m married to the best guy in the world. But at PWQ GFWE, dozens of people kept telling me over and over again, “Bless Your Heart!” The first time I recall getting this response, was after telling folks why BFF Jan and I had to go to urgent care on Day 1, missing Keynote speaker, Jamie Ford. Then there was the shock of seeing how ghastly my olive complexion looked next to my bright red/orange Ann-Margret wig… And I think the last time might’ve been when—after some rather erratic aerobic activity on the dance floor (think ‘Elaine dancing on Seinfeld’)—my teased and bubbled hairdo ballooned out of control, taking on an alien life of its own….
But, how much more blessed can one person be than fellowshipping in a room full of hundreds of books, authors, and readers? I mean, really?…
Just needed to rave and share…So, bless all of y’all’s little hearts for reading!
This is probably the most arbitrary list I’ve created in a long time… Well, I guess that could be debatable, because all of my lists are pretty arbitrary… Of course, I haven’t read ALL the books by ALL the great authors who attended Pulpwood Queen’s Girlfriends Weekend (PWQ GFWE) 2014. But I shipped home pounds and pounds of them, so that will be rectified at some point. (Notice I couldn’t write “soon” since I’m the slowest reader on the planet…) But I am still looking forward to seeing my UPS person visit me in the near future…
5) Shannon McKenna Schmidt’s Writers Between the Covers: The Scandalous Romantic Lives of Legendary Literary Casanovas, Coquettes, and Cads. (Nonfiction; co-authored by Joni Rendon) I listened to this book on CD in my car and it was so captivating that I was almost arrested for loitering in the parking lot at Nugget Markets as I lingered and loitered, listening to the end of an anecdote. I later picked up a hard copy as well so that I could reread parts of this fascinating book, again! Some of the chapters are short, concise snippets of information, while others tell longer tales. All are interesting and entertaining—and a bit voyeuristic… And if you think Oscar Wilde, Ernest Hemmingway, and Lord Byron are the only authors who had complicated love lives, wait ‘til you hear about Anais Nin, Simone de Beauvoir, and Colette. Apparently, ‘what’s good for the goose is good for the gander…’
I also must recommend the co-author’s previous book, Novel Destinations: Literary Landmarks From Jane Austen’s Bath to Ernest Hemingway’s Key West, which I read several years ago. For both actual travelers and armchair ‘staycationers’ alike, this book takes you on a great journey of literary “stuff to see” when you’re in (fill in the blank.) For example, if you’re in Alabama (as I was last year) take a detour over to Monroeville, home of Harper Lee (and Truman Capote), to see the courthouse where Atticus Finch made his compelling speech in defense of Tom Robinson in To Kill a Mockingbird.
4) Karen Harrington’s Sure Signs of Crazy. (Contemporary Young Adult Fiction) Although this is a sequel to her adult novel, Janeology, as she’s switched genres, Sure Signs of Crazy is actually her first Young Adult book. But don’t let that fool you—adults will want to read it too. It’s the coming of age story of Sarah Nelson, the surviving twin of Janeology fame. Touching, poignant, and quite funny at times, you’ll root for Sarah as she discovers who she is—and isn’t. Brava, Karen, on your creative genre shift!
3) Julie Kibler’s Calling Me Home. (Historical Fiction) This was one of the last books I read in 2013, and since I’d already written my Top 10 list, I wasn’t able to include this gem. (But since it came out in paperback this month, watch for it on this year’s list…) This work of historical fiction is woven with a contemporary storyline. And while I usually find the latter to be much weaker than the historical tale in novels where this literary device is used, in this case, I loved both threads of the novel. A photo of Julie’s grandmother served as the inspiration for this Romeo and Juliet story of a young white woman who falls in love with a black man in 1930’s Jim Crow south. The current storyline involves a young African-American woman and an elderly white woman who forge a meaningful friendship. Her characters are full of emotion, conflict, and torn loyalties, and even if you think you know how things will conclude, you have a surprise twist in store at the end. It’s a wonderful, heartfelt novel that everyone should read!
2) Melanie Benjamin’s The Aviator’s Wife. (Historical Fiction) Melanie’s books just keep getting better and better! The Aviator’s Wife not only made my Top 10 list for 2013, but at PWQ GFWE, it walked away with the award for the PWQ Book of the Year for 2013 as well! Well deserved! If you haven’t read this fictional account of one of the most famous couples in American history, Anne Morrow and Charles Lindbergh, you’re in for a treat. Many of us know Lucky Lindy for his historic transatlantic flight of 1927. Or perhaps you’re familiar with the couple due to the tragic kidnapping and death of the Lindbergh baby—the “crime of the century”—in 1932. Instead, this novel focuses on Anne Morrow Lindberg, aviator in her own right, and a fabulous writer. (Gift from the Sea is one of the most cherished books in my library…) The story of this strong and accomplished woman is fascinating. (Check out this link to a previous blog on this book…)
1) Jamie Ford’s Songs of Willow Frost. (Historical Fiction) All of you know what a huge Jamie Ford fan I am. His first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet was a major hit with book clubs, and Songs of Willow Frost is destined to follow in its footsteps. Again, we follow a young Chinese boy in Seattle—this time in the 1930’s—who is searching for love, family and identity. Wise beyond his years, we root for him as he struggles to find “home.” (See a more in-depth review from last fall…) and you’ll understand why “Songs” was also included on my Top 10 list for 2013.
Let me know what books you’re recommending to friends. My TBR list always has more room!
Pulpwood Queen’s Girlfriend’s Weekend (PWQ GFWE) is one of my favorite weekends of every year. Books, authors, readers and a BIG party every night—and get this—with COSTUMES—what’s not to love? But during the day, we hear from talented keynote speakers and fascinating panels of authors talking about their books, their inspiration, and their lives. There are always several sound bites I just have to right down. And of course, with all of you, I must share my top 10…
8. “I want to be her.” Melanie Benjamin (author of The Aviator’s Wife) told herself this as she was signing books at an event with Jeannette Walls, and noticed Jeannette’s long line of admiring fans eager for her autograph. Melanie was a relative unknown in the those days, having just released her debut novel, Alice I Have Been, while Jeanette was there with The Glass Castle which had been on the best-seller list for months at that point… (I think Melanie must’ve been pleased… She not only accepted the award for Best Pulpwood Queen Book of 2013—but also after her keynote speech, I noticed her book-signing queue trailed down the hall…)
6. “There are all kinds of voices going on in my head all the time. I write comedy because I can be crazy without being locked up.” Shellie Rushing Tomlinson (author of Heart Wide Open) on why she writes what she writes…
5. “If you wrestle with a pig in the mud, you both get dirty, but the pig enjoyed it.” Jamie Ford (author of Songs of Willow Frost) commented on the fact that an author cannot win when engaging with a reader over a negative review…
3. “I just talked to Pat Conroy in bed.” Karen Harrington (author of Sure Signs of Crazy) came out of her bedroom to share this little tidbit of information with her husband after Pat Conroy had phoned late one night to dictate a cover blurb for Karen’s sophomore novel…
And the top sound-bite heard at PWQ GFWE…
1. “I’m the once divorced, twice married, Christian wife of a Jewish husband, a recovering alcoholic who has a daughter with Down’s Syndrome, a brother who is gay, and an African-American son-in-law. You need to be careful what you say around me.” Again, the ever-spunky Christa Allan on her multi-levels of diversity… As a former diversity trainer, I’ve gotta love a woman like that. And with two sound-bites on my list, I think I just may have to read this woman’s books…
Happy New Year! Yep, it’s that time of year… And thanks to the nice folks over at Women’s National Book Association, I not only posted my annual Top 10 Book Club Books list in record time this year, but I also limited it to the actual number 10. (See what miracles an editor—and a deadline—can perform?)
They would appreciate it, if you would take visit over to their site and check it out! And if you’re feeling generous, please go ahead a post a comment. (Editors like that kind of stuff…)
So, here’s the 6-million dollar question: What was YOUR favorite book of 2013?
Full reviews of selected Top 10 Titles:
The Aviator’s Wife by Melanie Benjamin
Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Chimes from a Cracked Southern Belle by Susan Reinhart
The Crooked Branch by Jeanine Cummins