Did you know that October is National Reading Group Month? Are you in a reading group or book club?
I'm incredibly, incredibly honored that the National Women's Book Association chose The Blessings of the Animals as one of ten Great Group Reads in honor of this month. Honored doesn't begin to cut it—more like over the moon!
I want to take this time, though, to share with you some books I've read this summer that I think are great group reads that I'd recommend to book clubs. (And speaking of book clubs, you all know I love to talk to book clubs, right? If you're not close enough for me to visit in person, I can Skype or call. Just last week I Skyped a book club in Saskatchewan).
My reading tends to be all over the place. I can't stand to be without a book and will often have more than one book "going" at a time. Lately, though, I've been blessed with amazing books that suck me right in and demand undivided attention. Since I've been out on book tour this summer, I've had lots of time to read in airports, on planes, in hotels, and once even waiting for my hotel room to be ready!
Since I'm at work on a young adult novel, I've been reading much of that genre. My very favorite of the summer was Kristina McBride's debut novel, The Tension of Opposites. The story of a kidnapping victim returned after several years, told from the perspective of the best friend who lost her...and feels she lost her again once her friend is "back" but so changed, this book is smart, beautiful, and so tensely suspenseful I stayed up until 2:17 one night to finish it.
Another young adult novels that won my heart was Lips Touch: Three Times by Laini Taylor. This book is made up of three stories, not really linked by anything other than at their hearts they're all about the power of yearning. Taylor is a genius at blending in old tales and myths and historical details. Full of the supernatural, hauntings, visits to hell, old curses, and ghosts, I absolutely ate this up. The vivid imagery is rich and dense as decadent chocolate cake.
Still in the young adult category was The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. I have a soft spot for zombie stories, people are sometimes surprised to learn. This is a coming of age story set against the backdrop of a zombie apocalypse, where a young woman fights to find her true self and follow her own destiny within her walled, sheltered, and confining (in every way) community, surrounded by the forest of the "unconsecrated." If you feel dubious about zombies, rest assured they are simply the backdrop of this rich story that features a strong, brave, and resourceful heroine. I'm very excited to get my hands on Ryan's sequel, The Dead-Tossed Waves.
One book that helped me "get lost" this summer was Commuters by Emily Gray Tedrowe. I'll be honest that I was eager to read the book initially simply because I met Emily at ALA in June and she was so lovely and fun. Well, her book is the same, but also touching and rich. Told from multiple points of view, this is exactly the kind of family drama I adore—and a story where each different viewpoint adds something to your understanding of ALL the characters. The character who totally stole my heart was Avery, a chef. I've had chefs as characters in my last two novels, so Emily really had me with her amazing descriptions of food and food prep. I was itching to get home and into my kitchen. There's a Thanksgiving menu in this book that I long to get my hands on.
In July, I taught at the Antioch Writers' Workshop and was blown away by two other faculty readings. Crystal Wilkinson could read a grocery list and I'd be enthralled. I picked up her book Water Street, and quickly learned that you don't need Crystal reading her work herself for it to be enthralling. Describing the secret and intertwining lives of neighbors and friends and Water Street in a small Kentucky town, this book will haunt you with its truths and breathtaking observations. I'm very excited to know that her new book, The Birds of Opulence (not yet released) will contain many of the characters from Water Street.
Another writer I was delighted to discover at the Antioch Writers' Workshop was Donald Ray Pollock. Just as with Crystal, it was the power and fine performance of his reading that convinced me to buy his book of linked stories, Knockemstiff. The recurring characters who live in Knockemstiff, Ohio (a real town, by the way, although the work is fiction) are tough, sad, depraved, and resilient. Their stories are gritty and often violent but the stories have a dark sense of humor and are delivered without judgment. He makes me think of Flannery O'Conner. I'm not kidding.
Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok transported me in the most beautiful way on a travel day. The inspiring story of a bold, scrappy girl from Hong Kong plunked down in Brooklyn with her mother and forced to survive unspeakable squalor, slavish factory work, and overwhelming odds against her, this book is one of those triumphs of spirit that make you feel sooo good (but without ever resorting to sentimentality). I was rushing to finish a chapter when my plane was landing. The next thing I knew, a flight attendant was asking, "Ma'am?" and gesturing to me that the plane was empty! It's that kind of book and that kind of writing!
I finished If You Follow Me by Malena Watrous. A young woman goes to teach English in a tiny Japanese town shortly after the suicide of her father. During her trials and tribulations with the language and the "trash police" she learns that you can't really throw away your past...or anything else easily in Japan, for that matter. Sometimes this book made me laugh out loud, and other times it made my eyes burn as I fought not to cry. I found it so unflinchingly honest that it was sometimes painful, sometimes awkward, but very refreshing and unlike anything else I'd ever read.
Over Labor Day weekend, I read Labor Day by Joyce Maynard. Wow. I'm really on a roll of great books. Narrated by a young teenaged boy, this book looks back at an unexpected encounter (an escaped convict who stays in the boy's home and the mutual love between the convict and the boy's mother) that turns into a life-altering weekend. When I finished reading, I felt as if my own life had been altered. I recognize that I really, really love adult novels that are narrated by young adults or children...
...which leads me to a book that utterly, completely, blew me away: Room by Emma Donoghue. Where do I even begin? I have to agree with Michael Cunningham, whose blurb of this novel says, "Room is that rarest of entities, an entirely original work of art. I mean it as the highest possible praise when I tell you that I can't compare it to any other book." Narrated by a five-year-old whose entire life has been spent in "room"—where he was born, and where his kidnapped mother has been held prisoner for seven years. I don't want to give too much away. Just trust me: you want to read this!
There are so, so many more—The Life You've Imagined by Kristina Riggle, The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby—but this is a good starting place. Whenever I'm visiting a book club and they ask me for recommendations on what to read next, my mind always goes blank and I can't think of all the amazing things I've read. Now, I'll be able to direct them to this blog.