Are you thinking about starting a book club? I love talking about books, and am currently in two book clubs, so I'm here to help!
My two book clubs operate somewhat differently. My young adult book club meets monthly, and we all vote on our next six books twice a year. It’s a larger group, so we meet with whoever is available on the scheduled date, and people come even if they haven’t read the book...as long as they don’t mind spoilers. My other book club is smaller – four of us. We take turns choosing books to discuss, and we choose books that none of us have read before. For this group, we reschedule meetings until everyone has finished the book, which means we don’t read as many books each year.
The three things you need to start a book club are: books to discuss, people to discuss them with, and a place to meet.
Books to Discuss
One reason to join a book club is to read books that you might not pick for yourself. So unless you find a magical group of friends with the exact same taste as you, you’re going to read some books you don’t like. And honestly, some of my favorite meetings are after everyone hates the book. We also have really interesting discussions when some people like the book and others don’t. As you talk about the books, you might find problems that you glossed over while reading, or notice worthwhile aspects of books that you thought were trash.
If you have a stable group of club members, rotating picks keeps things pretty fair. With my small book club, we also have a plan in case new people want to join. Anyone is welcome to drop into a meeting by reading the book we’ve already agreed on and joining in the discussion. If someone new wants the power of suggesting books, they first need to come to four meetings, reading one pick from each current member, and then they pick the fifth book and become part of our rotation. I know it's kind of intense, but people are always saying they want to join, but only if they can pick the books. Not happening! This book club doesn’t have a theme, but we’re all trying to expand our knowledge of experiences outside our own, so we’ve mostly been picking books by women of color lately.
For YA book club, we do things a little differently. There are about 15 people who rotate in and out of meetings, and the meetings usually have between six and ten attendees. We have a Facebook group, and when it’s time to pick new books, I make a document on the group page. Each member can add up to three suggestions to the document, and we copy in the book descriptions so the options are easy to review. At the beginning of the next meeting, we each vote for our top 6 books from the list. It can be really hard to choose, because we often end up with 20+ suggestions. If members can’t make it to the voting meeting, they’re allowed to send their votes with someone else. Whichever books have the most votes are our next six picks. If more than six books tie for the most votes, we do a run-off vote at the meeting. We assign the books to months based on topic (we usually try to have a scary book for October and light books during December, since the holidays get so busy) or availability (books that we know will have long waits at the library go at the end of the six months).
People to Discuss Them With
I mentioned the first purpose of a book club - to read new books and get better understandings of them through your discussions. The other purpose is to make new friends or connect more with your existing friends. My small book club has been going for ten(!) years, and started because two friends from college and I wanted to catch up regularly. We spend as much time chatting as we do discussing the book, if not more. My young adult book club has been going for about 8 years, and the participants have changed quite a bit during that time. This book club is open to the public, so a few people have joined by stumbling upon our Facebook group, but most people have joined through a friend.
If you’re looking for a book club to join, look for Facebook groups, Meetup pages, or flyers in bookstores, libraries, or coffeeshops. Try searching by genre to find people who are interested in similar books as you. For example, the Forever Young Adult website lists book clubs around the world for adult YA readers. It’s hard to find people who aren’t flaky, which is how I ended up in charge of my YA book club. Someone has to be the responsible one, and if you’re committed to having a book club, it might have to be you. Start a Facebook group or a Meetup, make some flyers, and commit to showing up. There might be months when you’re the only one who comes to the meeting (it’s happened to me), or maybe there will just be a couple of you at first, but keep trying. Post on social media, on community bulletin boards at grocery stores, libraries, or bookstores. Ask the staff at those places if they know of anyone else who’s looking to form a book club, or ask your friends to ask their friends. I’m sure one of them is just dying to discuss books with you.
A Place to Meet '>
With a private book club, the place can be the easiest part. If you feel comfortable, you can rotate meeting at members’ houses. My small book club used to meet in restaurants, but we recently switched to meeting at the home of the person who suggested the book. It’s nice to not feel like we have to rush our discussion to free up the table, or worry about what we're saying in public. Plus, we get to see each others’ partners, pets, and kids, and show off our new stuff.
Finding a space to meet for public book clubs can be challenging. My YA book club originally met at In Other Words feminist bookstore, which was an awesome resource for the community. Since In Other Words closed, we’ve been meeting at the Multnomah County Library. Libraries often have community rooms that you can reserve, as long as someone stays on top of making reservations and filling out paperwork. You can meet in a restaurant, but that means that most of the people in the group need to order food. Restaurants can also be noisy, especially if you’re a large group and can’t sit right next to everyone. Some coffee shops will let you hang out for a while if you buy drinks or pastries, which is a little less expensive. If anyone in your group has a connection to a college or university, maybe your group can reserve a space there. You can also try finding themed spots – if you have a queer book club, is there a queer community center in town that will let you meet there for a reduced price? Would a book store let you host a book club if some members buy the book there? It can take some searching.
Now What Do We Talk About?
I like to start meetings with each person saying a sentence or two about their thoughts on the book. If not everyone knows each other, this is a good time to introduce yourself to the group, and you can also share any personal news. I like dedicated time for each person to speak, especially if they’re someone who tends to get spoken over. Going around is a good way to gauge the thoughts of the group on the book, and you can always come back to things that are mentioned here. If there’s a lull in the conversation, it’s nice to be able to say, “So, you said that you didn’t like the ending of the book. What didn’t you like about it?” I personally like to ask people who don’t speak up as much to elaborate on their opinions, which hopefully they don’t hate too much.
For some books, you can find discussion questions online, which are helpful if the conversation hits a wall. If you’re looking for ways to prepare for your meeting, how about looking at the author’s Twitter feed or website, reading reviews of the book to see what other people think, or imagining who you would cast in the movie of the book? YA book club always ends with two questions: Who would you cast in the movie, and was this a feminist book? Once your book club gets going, you’ll also have a shared book history, so you can compare the book to others that you’ve read. If you run out of things to talk about in your current book, ask everyone what other books they’re reading, or what new releases they’re excited for.
My last piece of advice for starting a book club is to have fun. This isn’t school, and no one should get shamed or feel bad for not finishing the book or for interpreting a book differently than someone else.
Good luck out there, and I hope you find your people and discover a ton of new, exciting reads!
Big thanks to Emily and Corinne at Hybrid Pub Scout podcast for interviewing me about writing a book, self-publishing, the Oregon Book Awards, zines, and vulnerability. It was really fun to record my first-ever podcast, and it turns out I don't hate the sound of my own voice as much as I thought I would! Click at the link above or on the photo below to listen in!
If you are bummed that I didn't talk a lot in the podcast about YA books that have influenced me, follow me on Instagram! Every Friday, I'm posting a different young adult novel recommendation. Some are books that have influenced my writing, and some are just plain great stories. Either way, I hope I can help you find some exciting new reads!
This year, I decided to be a little more intentional about the books that I read than I have in the past. I was also hoping to avoid the scramble to find a new book that comes when I finish one book and don't have another lined up. I'd heard of the Popsugar Reading Challenge, but usually came across it halfway through the year, and then I'd try to cram books I'd already read into the categories, get frustrated, and give up. This year, though, I planned correctly and jumped in at the beginning of the year! I downloaded the list of reading prompts and joined the Popsugar Reading Challenge Group on Goodreads, which has a lot of helpful resources, like a place for each member to track our progress and discussion boards about each prompt, full of suggestions.
Some of the prompts are easy. A book I meant to read in 2018? No problem, I have a ton! A book about a person with superpowers or a book about an imaginary character? Both easy, considering the amount of YA sci-
fi and fantasy I read. But some of the prompts have been more challenging for me. I still haven't settled on my book set in Scandinavia, book that includes a wedding, or book that takes place in one day. Some prompts are deceptive in their difficulty. A book with at least one million ratings on Goodreads sounded easy, until I realized that I'd already read most of them, and I'd intentionally avoided almost all of the ones I hadn't read. There's no rule that says you can't reread books for the challenge, but I decided to try for all new-to-me books (except for the "reread of a favorite book" prompt, of course). I also wanted to leave room for books that I discover as the year goes on. I was nervous that I would feel trapped if I only read books from my list, so I'm still picking up other books that catch my eye. Plus, I have to find a book that I think should be made into a movie, and how can I decide that before I've actually read the book?
One thing I like about this challenge is that it's self-directed, so you can choose how strict you want to be about the books you read. Some people in the
Goodreads group are interpreting "book with a zodiac sign or astrology term in the title" to include any sky-related word, but I tried to find book with an actual zodiac sign in the title. (And I did!) You can also modify your list as the year goes on. So if you start a book that turns out to not be your style, swap it out for something else! Plus, so many books can fit in multiple categories that I can definitely see myself making adjustments to my list as the months go on.
You can track my reading for the challenge along with me if you're interested, and follow my reviews on Goodreads to get more info about what I think of each book. Plus if you're doing the challenge yourself, my novel Book Smarts and Tender Hearts could fit in at least two categories. . . a debut novel, a book about a family, and just maybe a book that you think should be made into a movie!
I made an author page on Instagram! Follow me for some photographic insights into my life and writing process, and probably lots of pictures of my cats. I'm starting out with the Author Life Month challenge, which is a month of themed posts for authors. My first day was something I've been wanting to post here for a while - a Shelfie! The picture above is the bookshelf I've been moving from house to house since I was a child, and it's full of all of my favorite books. I'll tell you about some of them below.
I used to go to the State Fair every year and buy a new Priscilla book from Colene Copeland. They're about pigs, and based on real pigs that Colene owned. When I bought new books from her, she would sign them "Pig out on books!"
Stir-Fry was my first Emma Donoghue book, which I bought at a library book sale. It was taken out of rotation because a dog chewed on the cover. I'd seen it reviewed in Sassy magazine, so I picked it up, and it became one of my early favorite lesbian novels.
I loved Christopher Pike in my early teens, and Remember Me was always my favorite. I remember so many little details about that story, like how the main character had such thick hair that she was always breaking hairbrushes.
Poppy Z. Brite is another favorite author that I discovered through Sassy magazine. The feelings of isolation that she described in Lost Souls really spoke to me, and I still can't hear about a muffuletta sandwich without remembering Drawing Blood. The muffuletta sandwich is only mentioned in passing, but it was the first time I'd ever heard of one. I bought both of those books new, so maybe you can tell how many times I read them. She did such an amazing job of describing first love in the stories in Second Line, and as I became less interested in horror, I really appreciated watching that love develop through the Liquor series.
The Graceling series are some of my favorite young adult books that I discovered as an adult. A feminist fantasy series full of badass women, queer side characters, magically colored animals and contraceptive herbs? Yes, please! Bitterblue is my favorite of the series, with her codebreaking and math love. Such good coming of age stories!
Annie on My Mind and Peter are two other favorite queer novels from my youth, but as you might have guessed by the flawless condition of these copies, I only recently purchased them. When I was growing up, I would just check them out from the library over and over. Peter is one that's kind of hard to find, and not many people I know have read it, but it's one of my absolute favorite books ever. I love how it shows that sexuality isn't black and white, and how sometimes it can take a while to figure things out.
A lot of these books sum up why I love YA literature. I absolutely adore the new rawness of the characters' feelings, and when I was young, finding my feelings written down in a story was one of the best feelings. As a writer, I can't think of anything better than giving someone else the experience of seeing their emotions in print. Hopefully, that's something I can accomplish with my writing.
Okay, I saved the best group of book recommendations for last – young adult, my favorite genre! As I said in my previous blog post, I didn’t read as much YA this year as I usually do. I was afraid that reading YA while working on my own YA novel would make me compare my work or inadvertently try to replicate the book I was reading. Maybe I was overthinking it. But anyway! It wasn’t an entirely YA-free year, and I did read several awesome books this year. Once again, these recommendations aren’t all books that were published in 2018, but rather my favorite books that I read during 2018. Check them out! (library pun!)
The Gentleman's Guide to Vice and Virtue by Mackenzi Lee (2017)
This story is delicious. It’s about Monty, a flamboyant bisexual boy who’s the son of a Lord in 1700s England, and he goes on a Grand Tour of Europe (which I guess was a Thing) with his sister and his BFF/secret crush Percy. I loved it, and especially recommend it if you like stories about boys who kiss boys, stories about teens having adventures, and/or agonizingly beautiful crush feelings. I spent most of the time I was listening with a dopey grin on my face. I loved how Monty (and the audiobook reader) calls everyone “dahhhhhling,” how he’s confident but also knows he’s a fuckup, and how he seems like he doesn’t care about anything but secretly has very tender feelings inside. It’s a great book that you can just cozy up with and get lost in.
Queens of Geek by Jen Wilde (2017)
This story is about three best friends and a whirlwind weekend at a Comic Con. I don’t participate in fandoms or do cosplay or anything, but these characters do, and it was really fun to see the weekend through their eyes. Alternating chapters are narrated by Taylor, who’s chubby and autistic and secretly in love with the one boy in the group, and Charlie, a vlogger/actress who’s recovering from a very public breakup and getting to know her crush, Alyssa. I haven’t read many books with autistic main characters, so Taylor’s chapters were probably the most eye-opening for me, but I loved Charlie’s chapters too. The story has a wonderful emphasis on friendship, as Taylor and Charlie support each other through all the feelings and drama.
Undead Girl Gang by Lily Anderson (2018)
I liked this more than I thought I would! I'm not particularly interested in zombies, but this has some fun twists on a classic zombie story. It’s about Mila, a teenage girl whose best friend Riley and two popular girls from school have all just died. Mila, who’s been practicing witchcraft with Riley, brings them all back to life and tries to figure out what happened. I liked the undead girls a lot, and how all the girls bond and realize that they like each other despite being so different.
Aru Shah and the End of Time by Roshani Chokshi (2018)
More of a middle-reader than YA, but it’s a great story! Twelve-year-old Aru has to save the world (from her own screwup) by going on an adventure through Hindu mythology. She's sassy and insecure and very realistic, and she bonds with her fellow adventurers and creates a lovely, fun friendship story.
Not If I Save You First by Ally Carter (2018)
This has a lot of classic YA features, like a quick-moving story and teens who have time during a life-threatening situation to think about crushes and kisses. It’s about Logan, the son of the President of the USA, and Maddie, the daughter of a retired Secret Service agent. To try to keep him safe, Logan’s parents send him to stay in Alaska with Maddie and her dad. It turns out to be less safe than expected, though, as some bad guys attempt to kidnap Logan almost immediately upon his arrival. There’s a lot of backstory about Logan and Maddie and their relationship, but it gets revealed throughout the book, so you don’t have to wade through it to get to the action. Maddie is the tougher, more skilled one, but she still likes pretty things. Logan is bigger and stronger but doesn’t know as much about wilderness survival, so they’re pretty well-balanced as they work to save each other. It’s not a big emotional story…there are feelings, and a few moments of big feelings, but mostly it’s a fast-paced adventure, which is just what I was looking for.
I started reading mysteries a few years ago when I was searching for adult fiction that wasn’t romance-centered. I stumbled upon cozy mysteries, which I like because they are usually pretty light stories (which seems like an odd thing to say about stories involving murder, but I stand by it). I also think mysteries are very interesting from a writing perspective, and I like to see how authors weave the storylines together, plant red herrings, and eventually lead the sleuth to solve the crime.
As far as I can tell, the key components of a cozy mystery are:
This year, I listened to a lot of mystery audiobooks to relax while working on my novel. Since my book was young adult fiction, reading other YA novels felt way too close to home, so I really dove into mysteries. I even braved the world of non-cozy mysteries a little!
I’m always on the lookout for queer cozy mysteries. I found a couple this year, but they didn’t make my best-of list. The one queer mystery that did was definitely not cozy, as you’ll see below. I’m thinking about writing a queer cozy mystery as my next writing project, but I haven’t gotten very far. If you have any suggestions of queer cozies for me to check out, please let me know!
And now I present:
Shelley’s Favorite Mystery Reads of 2018
A Magical Match by Juliet Blackwell (A Witchcraft Mystery #9) (2018)
This is my favorite cozy mystery series, and I was excited when a new book came out. This series is about Lily, a witch who owns a vintage clothing store in San Francisco. Too often, cozy sleuths are prissy, fancy ladies, and I love that Lily isn’t. She runs around town in Keds and a ponytail, and is friends with the homeless man who sleeps in her store’s doorway. She also has a talking pig for a familiar, a colleague who makes plus-size replicas of vintage dresses, and a bunch of witchy and hippie friends who pop up occasionally to help her with research or tracking down leads. The audiobooks are narrated with a sweet Texas twang by Xe Sands, who is one of my favorite narrators, and the world of this series just seems so sweet and weird and fun. Plus, I love reading about the vintage clothes.
Blanche on the Lam (Blanche White #1) by Barbara Neely (1992)
I’ve been looking for more cozy mysteries written by authors of color, which is how I found this book. The main character, Blanche, is a black woman who does domestic work in rich white families’ homes, and starts sleuthing when there’s a murder in the house she’s working in. Blanche makes a lot of observations about the experience of being a black woman working for white people, and about police treatment of white vs. black people, and how black lives are treated as though they’re disposable. I liked this book a lot, and the author did a good job injecting social commentary into a story that could otherwise be pretty quick and easy.
Maisie Dobbs (Maisie Dobbs #1) by Jacqueline Winspear (2003)
This was a really interesting story! It’s not actually a cozy, since the sleuth in this book is a professional detective, but it does have a lot of the primness of some cozies. We start in the 1930s as Maisie sets up her detective agency, then most of the story is about her younger years, and with her personal life connecting to the mystery. Maisie was a nurse in World War I, which I learned a lot about, and an ambitious, inquisitive, driven woman in a time when women were expected to be none of those things. Before reading this book, I hadn’t considered how in-the-middle-of-things the nurses were during the war. I thought author did a good job of illustrating the horrors of war and how veterans are kind of abandoned when they come back. And Maisie is smart and kind and I liked her orderly process of solving the mystery.
Blackmail, My Love: A Murder Mystery by Katie Gilmartin (2014)
My final mystery recommendation for today is a standalone and is not cozy at all, but it’s definitely queer. This story takes place in the 1950s and is about Josie, who travels to San Francisco when her brother goes missing, and explores the underground gay scene while she searches for him. She meets lots of memorable characters, tells and hears heartbreaking stories about having to hide being queer, and comments on racism and sexism as well as homophobia. It’s a touching and engaging story that breaks every cozy rule that I listed above, including the graphic sex. I can’t recommend this book highly enough if you are interested in queer history!
The year is almost over, which means it’s time for best-of lists for 2018. I love looking back over the books I’ve read each year and picking my favorites. This year, I’m splitting my recommendations into three categories – non-fiction, mysteries, and young adult fiction – and making three posts. So many books to recommend! I don’t only read brand-new books, so these are my favorite books that I read during 2018. Some are new, and some are older. I’ll include the year of publication for easy reference.
I listened to almost all of these on audiobook, but I refer to “reading” them. I try to mention when the audio version is particularly well-read, in case that influences your decision of how to ingest the book.
If you’re interested in following my book reviews on the regs, feel free to add me on Goodreads!
And while you’re over on Goodreads, don’t forget to post your thoughts about MY novel, Book Smarts and Tender Hearts!
And now, without further ado, I present: Shelley’s Favorite Non-Fiction Books of 2018
When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Asha Bandele and Patrisse Cullors (2018)
It’s ridiculous that saying “Black Lives Matter” is so controversial. People act like it means that black lives matter more than white lives, but where in the history of the United States has that ever been the case? Considering how differently (than white people) black and brown people are treated by teachers, police, courts and the prison system, it seems clear that the system is set up to show how little black lives do matter. This book really takes you inside that experience, and Patrisse does an amazing job of explaining how it feels to be told that you don’t matter. She describes her family and friends with such tenderness and love, showing how the movement evolved not from anger, but from deep love for her community. I never thought about Black Lives Matter developing from such a personal place, but I see now that this is because it’s not that personal for me. But Patrisse grew up with constant reminders that her life, and the lives of her black family and neighbors, didn’t matter to police or other people in power.
The memoir is very open and raw, and you get to know her family and friends and the systems of support that they’ve created because they can’t rely on support from outside. Before reading this book, I didn’t know that Patrisse is queer. This fact might make you realize how little I knew about her going in. Her sexuality is a big part of the memoir, and I really appreciated that. Her coming out story felt familiar to me, and her gender and sexuality are central parts of her identity. I love how much she prioritizes centering trans women and queers, and to making Black Lives Matter a non-patriarchal movement.
This is a beautiful and powerful book, and Patrisse’s narration of the audiobook adds to the text. I recommend it highly!
Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead by Brené Brown (2012)
Until I finished writing my book, I didn’t realize how hard the vulnerability would be. Even admitting that I thought I had something to say that other people might find valuable felt really vulnerable. I also can’t control how other people interpret my story, what they connect with, or how their reading affects their ideas about me. All of this felt really scary. I walk a thin line between completely buying into touchy-feely-self-help talk and “this is such bullshit,” so I appreciated Brené’s talk about her own struggles with being vulnerable. I thought that was really refreshing. This book was a lot more helpful than I expected, and I’m looking forward to reading more of her work!
So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo (2018)
This is a great book! Ijeoma Oluo addresses a lot of topics, including cultural appropriation, affirmative action, intersectionality, and how to determine if something really is about race. She gives some good, concrete tips, like tying it back to larger systems of oppression when calling out racism. Instead of just saying “that’s racist” when someone says something offensive, you should instead say “that promotes a stereotype about this group that leads to them being offered fewer jobs and getting lower pay” (or whatever is relevant to the comment). She also comes back to that idea later, by giving examples in other chapters of calling things out. I liked that a lot. She says that it’s important to talk about race, but that talk isn’t the end. We need action as well. It’s a serious and dense book, but it moves quickly and doesn’t drag. It definitely gave me a lot to think about.
Educated: A Memoir by Tara Westover (2018)
This book was fascinating. It’s always interesting to learn about someone else’s life when it’s so different from your own. I didn’t realize there would be so much violence. The family’s patriarchal beliefs let abuse go unchecked, and there were also a lot of major accidents which led to long-term medical issues that never got dealt with beyond Reiki, salves and herbs. I think with the title being “Educated,” I was expecting the story to stick to education, but it ended up being about escaping from a lifetime of conditioning and abuse. I was really rooting for Tara, and I loved hearing about the things she had to learn when she got to college, knowledge that most incoming college students took for granted. It was also really interesting to see her process of becoming her own person and forming her own beliefs. It’s a pretty amazing story!
Get Well Soon: History's Worst Plagues and the Heroes Who Fought Them by Jennifer Wright (2017)
“Shaming people cures nothing. Living in a state of silence cures nothing.”
This book reminded me of a Mary Roach book, but with more political rants and less grossing me out. The author explains different plagues that have hit humans throughout history, like the Bubonic Plague, Syphilis, Tuberculosis and Typhoid. It moves quickly, is funny, and I learned a lot! She focuses on how different plagues have been handled, what worked and what didn’t, and talks about trends throughout history. I didn’t realize how common it is to blame victims for becoming sick, with society treating the sickness like a moral failing and fighting against the sick people rather than against the disease itself. My day job is in HIV prevention, and I never realized that the stigma of HIV/AIDS is not a new thing. It’s the same way sick people have been treated for centuries.
I was initially disappointed when I looked at the table of contents and realized that there wasn’t a chapter about AIDS, but she addressed it in the epilogue, and explained that she was focusing on plagues that have mostly been resolved. She had so much beautifully righteous indignation toward the members of Reagan’s administration who refused to acknowledge the AIDS crisis, with quotes like: “this plague seems a perfect case-in-point of what happens when you ignore every single one of history’s lessons regarding disease.” Very true!
I like cats, feminism, queers, making things and writing, apparently.