So this post started out as my April wrap-up post. And then when I didn’t end up reading much in April it was going to be an April/May combo post. But then that didn’t happen, either, and I was thinking I might just do a monster “Late Spring-Summer” wrap-up, but I’m just not feeling that.
Finally, I realized a post that might be loooong overdue is an explanation of my book club, or as I like to call it, Theme of the Month Non-Committal Readers’ Group (Please Come!).
I suppose the concept is somewhere in between a traditional book club, where everyone reads the same book, and an “any book book club.” We don’t all read the same book, but we don’t just read any book, either. Instead, we choose a theme or a prompt each month to guide our choice, so that when we all meet up to discuss, we (hopefully) have some common threads to follow.
We try not to make the theme a genre, so that readers can choose any genre they want, as long as it fits the theme. We are also very casual, and there are no hard and fast rules about the themes; they can be interpreted however readers want. And if you don’t get around to reading the book you meant to read for the month, no sweat–you can talk about any book you’ve recently read, or no book at all and just come for the chat and the waffle sundaes.
We’ve had some interesting prompts over the year or so we’ve been doing it this way, from “school” to “cold” to “fear.” Here are the last five themes we’ve chosen, and the books I chose to read for them.
April: “A Book You’ve Been Meaning to Read”
My Pick: Six of Crows, Leigh Bardugo
I picked this for a few reasons: (1) Netflix is adapting it, as well as Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy, into a series; (2) I loved the Grisha trilogy; and (3) my readers’ group theme for April was “a book you’ve been meaning to read.” Turns out, none of these were good enough reasons.
Bardugo is an excellent writer; her characters are compelling, her storytelling is tight, and her worlds feel real and fantastical all at once. So when I say that I didn’t enjoy Six of Crows, I have to emphasize that it wasn’t because it was bad. It just wasn’t for me. (It’s not you, it’s me.)
You might be wondering why I didn’t like it, given my respect and admiration for the author and my enjoyment of her previous series. I think it is at least partly psychological. I remember when it first came out, I took notice, because as I said, I really loved the Grisha trilogy. But when I read the description for Six of Crows, it just didn’t sound interesting to me, and that was that.
But then I took a brief but deep dive into BookTube right around the same time the Netflix series Shadow and Bone was announced, and it seemed like everyone on the internet was raving about Six of Crows. So I thought, maybe I was wrong. Maybe I should read it. I put it on my TBR, then picked it up from the library to read for my readers’ group.
And I think because there was so much hype and I had so built up my expectations, it wouldn’t have lived up to that regardless. But my first instinct about it also proved to be correct: the story itself just didn’t appeal to me. It’s a heist story, which I love to see in movies, but for whatever reason didn’t work for me in novel form. I can’t really explain why. But since this is a kind of story I love watching on film, I will definitely be watching the series.
Rating: 2.5 out of 5
My Pick: The Beast’s Heart, Leife Shallcross
This theme was even more abstract than they usually are. The idea here was to read a book that is somehow related to a storytelling tradition besides the standard, Western novel.
A couple people chose memoirs (Call the Midwife and Why Not Me?), one person chose a play (Twelfth Night), one a short story collection (One More Thing), and a few people, including myself, chose works related to oral storytelling or folk tales (the others being Black Leopard, Red Wolf and Geekerella).
My selection was a retelling of the fairy tale “Beauty and the Beast,” and I guess I was predisposed to like it. I am a sucker for a “Beauty and the Beast” retelling.
This one is told from the Beast’s perspective, and has a lot of lengthy sections that get really introspective and philosophical, with no dialog and little to no action–the Beast spends a lot of time alone in his giant castle in the original story, after all. But I never felt that these sections weighed it down. Rather, it’s a deep, quiet look at the character’s rich backstory that you don’t often get in other versions.
(This turned out to be a fun one to discuss with the group, too, as it prompted a lively side debate about who is the real protagonist of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, with one party arguing that Gaston is actually the good guy. Mind blown. I also ended up mentioning this book on Pop DNA’s Beauty and the Beast episode.)
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
June: “A Classic You’ve Never Read”
My Pick: A Room With a View, E. M. Forester
This turned out to be a fun prompt. Group members read books by Henry James, Mark Twain, Jane Austen, and Charles Dickens, and had very strong opinions on them. (At this meeting, my podcast cohost and I also interviewed a couple of members about their thoughts on Pride & Prejudice, and we put those interviews into this podcast episode.)
I honestly chose this Forester novel because it was short and easy to read, but I ended up liking it a lot. As I told the group, it felt sort of like a reverse Pride & Prejudice; there’s a couple of mismatched social class at the center, and you don’t know if they’re really going to get together or not. There is also a lot of social commentary and subverted societal expectations in this early 20th century love story. Plus it made me want to go to Italy, like, really bad.
Rating: 4 out of 5
July: “Local Stories or Authors”
My Pick: Shrill, Lindy West
I picked this one because I loved the Hulu series starring Aidy Bryant, and I’ve been sort-of familiar with West’s work for awhile, but never read anything of hers (except for her Love, Actually recap for Jezebel, which I read every Christmas; it’s my favorite tradition).
West is from Seattle, and wrote for the iconic publication The Stranger for several years; the TV series takes place in Portland, Oregon and the protagonist, Annie (Bryant’s character, based on West), works for a very Stranger-esque alternative news website.
I listened to the audiobook of this, which I like to do for memoirs, especially when they’re read by the author as this one is. I really loved West’s smart brand of humor and her story of coming into her own as a plus-size woman with unapologetic independence.
Where this fell short for me, though, was in what I felt was a bit of disingenuousness–if that’s a word? I didn’t feel like West was being as honest as she claimed to be about her feelings concerning some of her struggles. Part of this could just be the medium by which I consumed the book; audiobooks are by nature more performative than printed books. I would still recommend this to most readers who enjoy memoirs, humor, and women’s voices.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
My Pick: Madam, Will You Talk?, Mary Stewart
I’ve written about my love of Mary Stewart before, specifically her book Nine Coaches Waiting, and particularly for summer reading picks.
I chose this one for our travel prompt because the main character is travelling in the South of France when the events of the book unfold, but I later realized that almost all of Stewart’s protagonists are travelling in their stories, so almost any would fit the prompt. But Madam, Will You Talk? was her first novel, and I had somehow never read it, so I picked it up.
This is Stewart right in her wheelhouse: a young English woman in an “exotic” location, and somewhat out of her element, discovers a mystery and helps solve it, with the help of a dashing gentleman who at some point appears as though he may be the villain, but turns out not to be.
I’ve read most of Stewart’s novels now, as well as those of other romantic suspense authors from around the same era, so this is a predictable formula to me by now. But whoever said predictability was a bad thing?
Rating: 4 out of 5
For September, our prompt is “Cultures Collide,” and I have yet to choose a book even though our meetup is in six days! So if you have any recommendations for that prompt, let me know!
Are you part of a book club or readers’ group? How do you choose your books?