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Book Group Buzz

A Booklist Blog
Book group tips, reading lists, & lively talk of literary news from the experts at Booklist Online

Monday, March 17, 2014 3:15 pm
Robert Silverberg’s “Lord Valentine’s Castle”
Posted by: Misha Stone

My book group discussed Lord Valentine’s Castle by Robert Silverberg. It is a fantasy with science fiction elements about a man named Valentine who joins a troupe of jugglers. Valentine remembers little about his past and through dreams begins to discover that he was once king of the land, usurped by a vicious pretender, and that he must gather his strength and companions to regain the throne.

The discussion began with some talk of the plot–a classic fantasy quest. One reader said he felt is was not really science fiction as there was no technology, really. Then another reader launched into the problematic elements of the politics or message of the book in which a monarchy is basically lauded, divine right upheld with brainwashing as an element employed to this end; he felt is was essentially anti-democratic and found this, among other elements, troubling. One reader felt that the power structure was fascinating and unfolded in an interesting way; Silverberg does not present power via one bloodline and there are inherent checks and balances in place.

Lord Valentine’s Castle was published in 1980 after Silverberg took a hiatus from writing. Fans of his earlier, darker work felt that this was his attempt to write a more commercial work. One reader said it was professional in the best and worst sense of the word. Another reader said it is essentially a sword and planet type of book lacking real depth of characterization. Another reader said it was too long and would have been a better book with the journey condensed.

One member who was not able to attend sent an email in which she said she had loved the book, appreciated its diversity of characters and the way in which it conveys a sense that while we are all different we can get along. Silverberg himself, in an SF Signal interview, said that he wanted to convey a huge, joyous landscape in the book.

I enjoyed the book myself, but did note that it may not be the kind of book that holds up well under scrutiny. Not every book, really, is a great discussion book. But, I already knew that anything after Nancy Kress’ Beggars in Spain would pale in comparison.

Sunday, March 16, 2014 1:07 pm
The Tenderness of Wolves
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr

The Tenderness of Wolves by Stef Penney won the Costa Book of the Year Winner in 2006.  Trust me on this one:  there is not a character in this book who would not have wolfed down a big old cup of Costa coffee at any point in this novel.tenderness of wolves

At the time I am writing this, it is February and the Midwest is suffering another one of the arctic chills that have plagued us for this entire winter.  It is time for the monthly crime fiction discussion and I picked this novel without the knowledge that it was going to be a challenge for winter weary readers like us.

No matter, this historical novel is that good.  The basic plot of this novel is that Mrs. Ross’s son Francis is suspected of having murdered their next door neighbor, a French trapper, in the Canadian Northern Territory town of Caulfield.  Francis has taken off into the bush and Mrs. Ross decides to follow him.  Through a series of circumstances, she ends up being guided by an Indian trapper who is number two on the suspect list for the murder.  While Mrs. Ross’s part in the book is revealed to us in a first person narration, the book uses a number of other strong characters (in third person) to give us alternative perspectives on the situation.  Eventually, the Hudson Bay Company representatives, some local Native Indians, a few disreputable characters and a few downtrodden women all end up at various points in a snow filled landscape that chills to the bone.

While the novel is essentially a chase, it is paced slowly, not unlike walking through snow up to your knees.  Penney takes plenty of time to deal with each character’s backstory (treating minor characters with the same respect) while enriching our reading experience with highly detailed points about surviving the pioneer experience.  There are various love stories of various natures and the ache that the characters feel is transmitted through the pages to the reader.

Our group had no issues discussing this book once everyone got done criticizing its parallel to our weather.  Ironically, with our modern conveniences, the complaints should fall on deaf ears in comparison to the suffering of the characters in this book.  Sad, yet uplifting, The Tenderness of Wolves proved to be a great book discussion title.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014 3:47 pm
A Fine Time with Feinstein
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Season on the BrinkThe best sports books rise above the immediate concerns of the game and deal with grace under pressure, the ability of any human to handle everything life can bring in the toughest of situations. Sports also often provide a specific context for broader societal concerns like race and gender, ethical behavior, and social justice. When you’re in the hands of a good sportswriter, it doesn’t matter whether you care about the sport or not: the stories are universal.

John Feinstein has proven over the years that he’s one of the best of sportswriters. Focusing mainly on basketball and golf, but with occasional forays into football, baseball, and tennis. Feinstein has published one quality book after another. It’s a tough field: time marches on quickly and while these books have staying power for the reasons I mentioned above, the sales go mostly to new books on hot athletes and teams. If you haven’t tried Feinstein’s nonfiction, start anywhere. A Season on the Brink, one of his early books about the inflammatory Bob Knight and Indiana basketball is aFoul Trouble classic, as is A Good Walk Spoiled: Days and Nights on the PGA Tour. Or try Next Man Up: A Year Behind the Lines in Today’s NFL. He also has a brand new book: Where Nobody Knows Your Name: Life in the Minor Leagues of Baseball.

In recent years, Feinstein has turned more often to fiction for teens, mysteries and topical sports books. I just finished Foul Trouble, and it’s an eloquent summary of the intensity of the high school basketball recruiting process and the pressure on student athletes. The book follows Terrell Jamerson, a late-blooming top prospect who is facing a barrage of recruiters with only his coach and his point guard, the temper-prone Danny Wilcox, to help protect him. As recruiters try to get at Terrell  through his friends and family to pressure him with offers of cars, girls, endorsements, and most of all, money, it’s hard to find a path that doesn’t lead to ethical failure. The novel is fast-paced, suspenseful, and lays the problems of the real world out clearly. It’s a perfect choice for the Guys Read book groups that I work to support, but it’s a slam dunk choice for adult groups too. Don’t overlook sports books, whether fiction or nonfiction, as a good alternative for book groups of all kinds.

Thursday, February 27, 2014 3:51 pm
Let Him Go
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr

Sometimes setting can make a novel something special.  That is certainly true for Let Him Go by Larry Watson.  Watson was born in North Dakota and has used the west before in his works including the magnificent Montana 1948, one of my sure-bet book discussion titles.jacket

In this go-around, we are in the 1950s in Gladstone, Montana.  Retired sheriff George Blackledge’s wife Margaret is determined to retain ownership of her grandson Jimmy when her son tragically dies and his wife Lorna takes off with a bad boy named Donnie Weboy.  As the Blackledges pull up stakes and head out into Weboy country, they find themselves butting heads with a matriarchal family led by Blanche Weboy.  To say that things do not go smoothly would be an understatement.

While the characters are disturbing to read about so is the environment.  Harsh, remote and desperate, the small town Montana atmosphere is as disturbing as James Dickey’s Deliverance wilderness or anything Daniel Woodrell has dream up.  So many themes abound in this book including mothers and sons, husbands and wives, family feuds and regret.  The big one is loss—there is so much forsaken in the course of this novel by characters who would be much better off if they did not lose what they so desperate try to cling to.

For readers who like determined, stand-up characters in tough situations, this book is for them.  For book discussion groups, this bleak novel of character and setting should promote much discussion.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014 10:32 am
See You at PLA
Posted by: Neil Hollands

If you’re headed to Indianapolis for PLA, please join myself, Rebecca Vnuk of Booklist, and Lucy Lockley of St. Charles City-County Library District in Missouri for “Let’s Discuss Book Discussions.” The session will be held at 4:15 on Friday, March 14th in Rooms 244-245 of the Indiana Convention Center. I find few things more professionally invigorating than to join with dozens of other librarians who work with book groups and exchange best practices. I look forward to seeing you in Indiana!





Tuesday, February 25, 2014 5:46 am
Posted by: MaryKate Perry

I don’t have much history with graphic novels.  My husband has a collection of Marvel comics from the 1970′s, featuring superheroes flanked by large-busted women in metal bras. I avoid the dusty, lurid pile.  I read Babymouse and Diary of a Wimpy Kid because my children were reading them.  I am not completely immune to the charrelish cartoonms of Babymouse - how else would I have been introduced to a fairy godweasel?  And as for Diary, I would be culturally illiterate without an understanding of The Cheese Touch.  Still, the appeal of graphic novels eluded me until…Relish.

Here is just the book for your artsy, foodie book group. Lucy Knisley’s childhood with food-obsessed parents is remarkable to read about and view in these charming comics. The prose isn’t memorable but it doesn’t have to be.  The illustrations are so appealing and the pictorial recipes (I love recipes laid out with drawings or photos of the ingredients) make me want to dive into the kitchen.  Read this, make a couple of the dishes with your group and relish the results!

bonappetitKnisley has another graphic novel, French Milk, published in 2008. The visuals are in a spare style, not colored or as generous and eye-comforting as her work in Relish. This reminds me, I recently enjoyed another culinary graphic novel, Bon Appetit, the delicious life of Julia Child by Jessie Hartland.  I forgot about that one because it’s supposed to be a children’s book but it’s truly for anyone interested in Julia Child.


Thank you to Ryan Warner, my recent guest blogger, for loaning me Relish.  Only my scruples kept me from stealing it.

Friday, February 21, 2014 10:23 pm
“Beggars in Spain” by Nancy Kress
Posted by: Misha Stone

This month my book group discussed Beggars in Spain by Nancy Kress and what a wonderful discussion we had! It is clear that Beggars in Spain will be a hard act to follow.

Beggars in Spain started out as a novella that won Kress a Hugo and a Nebula. Kress decided to build upon her characters and her premise and she manages to do so in ways that keep the reader interested, surprised and invested. Leisha Camden is one of a small group of children who were genetically modified without the need to sleep. In their lifetimes society changes in reaction to the Sleepless as they quickly outstrip the Sleepers in intelligence, production and wealth. Kress looks at philosophical approaches to individual success, notions of community and what we owe to those who can’t or choose not to contribute, prejudice and how quickly it spreads, among other complex issues, through a seamless, character-driven narrative.

The room was packed with thoughts and opinions. One reader said that she appreciated how Kress lays out an ideology and then sets out to problematize it; Kress has said in interviews that she was inspired to dissect and explore Ayn Rand’s Objectivism and Ursula K. Le Guin’s Anarres anarchy. We spent time discussing characters, storylines and ideas in the book and then went around the table so all 15 members could give their final verdicts.

Here’s what they said about Beggars in Spain: It was a dense, well-written juxtaposition to the Alfred Bester novel that we had just read about individualistic versus distributed contributions with harsh perspectives to share on privilege and the forms it can take, how it can impact society; a fascinating read, explores the parent-child relationship so well; an Ideas book, which consequently made it a good read but forgettable for one reader who had read it 3 times over the years; liked that the villain in the book isn’t one-dimensional or motivated by typical female jealousy; Kress is incredibly skilled and covers law, economics and intimate relationships flawlessly; another comparison to Bester and how radical technologies have radical implications; the point of the book is that People Matter.

A book that elicits so many detailed thoughts and opinions is the hallmark of a book made for discussion. But like I said before, Beggars in Spain is going to be a hard act to follow.

Thursday, February 20, 2014 11:58 am
Pan-demonium: Peter and the Starcatcher(s)
Posted by: Neil Hollands

Peter and the StarcatchersSince 2004, humorist Dave Barry and mystery writer Ridley Pearson have turned their attention to a beloved young adult series, re-imagining J.M. Barrie’s classic Peter Pan  in their Peter and the Starcatchers books (there are five to date, plus three related junior books in the Never Land series). They begin by looking at the origin of Peter Pan, in his first adventures with Wendy Darling’s mother Molly and his clashes with the pirate Black Stache and others.

The chain of adaptation continued in 2009, when playwright Rick Elice (previously best known for Jersey Boys) adapted it into a rollicking comedy with music. Trimming the “s” off the Peter and the Starcatcher playend of Barry and Pearson’s title, his play is Peter and the Starcatcher. It’s a great play, made by Elice’s wordplay, sly cultural references, and eccentric characters. He creates an update that modern audiences will probably like better than the classic Pan adaptations and that theaters can produce without the expensive requirements to fly actors.

Peter and the StarcatcherIt’s also a play that can’t be completely captured on the page, depending on the comic embellishments of a particular production, the physical comedy, and the clever use of a few simple ropes, ladders, chests, and common objects to create a variety of locations and objects on the stage. Still, if you like humor, Peter Pan, or theater, you’ll love Peter and the Starcatcher: the Annotated Script of the Broadway Play. It’s loaded with great color illustrations. Elice, Barry, Pearson, and others contribute annotations that will help you pinpoint all of their references and that explain the genesis of the play from a local production to a Broadway smash.

Book groups don’t need to choose. They Tigerheartshould make a whole themed evening out of Peter Pan. Consider the Barrie originals, Peter David’s re-telling Tigerheart, Jodi Lynn Anderson’s young adult novel Tiger Lily, Brom’s dark graphic The Child Thief, and the biographies, both even-handed and scurrilous, of the complicated Barrie. Add a viewing of the film Finding Neverland to the mix for even more delights. The boy who wouldn’t grow up is an important archetype and your group will love exploring the many versions of the legend.

Sunday, February 16, 2014 8:19 pm
Best American Short Stories 2013
Posted by: Gary Niebuhr

The Best American Short Stories 2013, edited by Elizabeth Strout and Heidi Pitlor, rocks.

best american short stories 2013That’s it.

Sorry–I was trying to make more time to read short stories.  I do not know if it is an age factor or not, but in my dotage I find myself attracted to the short form as the long form seems to be taking longer to finish that it did when I was a pup.

But collections are always problematic.  Maintaining interest for one reader over a collection of twenty stories is probably not even the goal of the editors.  For me, this collection worked from the first story to the last.

One of the reasons why, I think, is that the stories are told in a straight ahead fashion with little experimentation with form.  While I enjoy an avantegarde surrealistic painting on occasion, sometimes it is enough to just get the aesthetics of a painting from the straight forward presentation of realism.  I am convinced this collection would work for a cross section of readers in a book discussion group.

That is why I think a book discussion group could read this title and find plenty to discuss.  Whether everyone reads the same story or stories are selected individually for discussion, there is a lot to talk about in this collection.

My favorite story of all was The Wilderness by Elizabeth Tallent.  In this story we hear the confession of a professor who appears to be one thing publically and is a whole different thing internally.  This story, in a very quiet fashion, projects a lot of emotion that touched me.

Here is how the professor views her English students:  “Literature looked back at her from their eyes and told her certain things she was sure they ought not to have understood at their age.  They had gotten it from books–books with their intricacies and the things they wanted you to know about love and death that you could have gone a long time not knowing if you had not been a reader, and which, even when you were a reader, you saw as universal truths that did not apply to you.”

To her regret, this professor was asked a question once and now wants the opportunity to answer.   “…so they parted and not long after that lost touch and she was left answering him in her mind, saying yes, there was something she’d like, just one word, on her gravestone.


I can live with that.

Friday, February 14, 2014 2:10 pm
Off the Beaten Trek: John Scalzi’s Redshirts
Posted by: Neil Hollands

RedshirtsThe death of red-shirted crewmen from the original Star Trek series has become a part of our pop culture landscape. Most of us know that a “redshirt” is a sacrificial lamb, a bit of living collateral damage that will be sacrificed for the larger good, probably about the time of the first commercial.

John Scalzi’s 2013 Hugo and Locus Award winner Redshirts uses this in joke as its starting point. Andrew Dahl and his new friends on the Universal Union’s Intrepid can’t help but notice that away missions tend to be fatal for new crew like themselves. This notion is reinforced when a strange bearded man emerges from somewhere in the starship walls to warn them to avoid certain officers when a trip down to the latest planet is in the works.

This isn’t Star Trek exactly, but as the story continues, we discover that it is connected to Trek in a way that should make viewers think about their relationship to the shows they watch. I don’t want to give away the twists, but before many chapters have passed, Scalzi has taken us down the metafiction wormhole, thinking about what it would mean if our pop culture jokes about redshirts had a darker truth at their core.

Readers who don’t normally attempt science fiction should be able to follow and enjoy this. Even if they’ve somehow never taken a voyage with Captain Kirk or any of his followers, a one-minute explanation should give them all the back story they need. The novel is full of adventure, comedy, fun characters, and a little bit of pathos. There are some philosophical twists–especially in three “codas” that Scalzi uses to finish the book–that provide substance on which to base a healthy conversation.

If your book group takes a hankering to Scalzi, consider other books from his canon. Old Man’s War, Fuzzy Nation, The Android’s Dream, or Agent to the Stars would all make fine, funny selections for your group as well.

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