Category Archives: Book Club

2016 Book Club books

I’m still participating in (and running) two book

As always, we read some great books and some OK books.

So, what did we read?  Strong recommendations are in bold.

In one club, we read:

  1. The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer by Sydney Padua
    This was a fun read, and very interesting to a Silicon Valley book club, but I’m not sure if the appeal will generalize.  We were able to follow up with a book club trip to the Computer History Museum to see a working modern production of a Babbage Engine.
  2. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
  3. The Walls Around Us by Nova Ren Suma
    This book was unlike anything else I’ve read.  It was creepy, disturbing, and beautifully written.  It mixed ghosts and ballerinas and a maximum security Juvenile Detention Center.  It has depth and texture and ambiguity. It has amazing characters that are terrible and sympathetic at times, and sometimes simultaneously.  It has black and white and shifting shades of grey, and  led to a great book club discussion.
  4. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
  5. Digging to America by Anne Tyler
    A book with perspective on what it means to be a parent and what it means to be an American.  As character perspectives change, so do the reader’s view of the events in the story.
  6. Euphoria by Lily King
    An entirely unexpected view of the world of an anthropologist in the 1930s.
  7. When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi
    Quite literally a tale of life and death, or rather thoughts on life and death.  The writings of approaching death by someone who understdands it well from an intellectual perspective, but who has to learn about the more personal side.
  8. My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante
  9. Furiously Happy: A Funny Book About Horrible Things by Jenny Lawson
    An insightful and laugh out loud funny view of living with mental illness.
  10. The Railwayman’s Wife by Ashley Hay
    A beautifully written book on learning to live with loss, both as an individual and as a town.
  11. My Life on the Road by Gloria Steinem
    An inspirational view of how to make a difference in society.  The timing of this, coming right after the election, made this discussion mean even more to our group.
  12. The Year We Turned Forty by Liz Fenton

And the other:

  1. Memory of Water by Emmi Itäranta (Silicon Valley Reads)
  2. Sherwood Nation by Benjamin Parzybok (Silicon Valley Reads)
  3. Speak by Louisa Hall
    Overall, this book looks at what it means to be human, or to have a soul, or to really understand and empathize with what someone says. The different views range from a young woman traveling to America in 1663 (who has a closer bond to her dog than the people around her) to people dealing with modern (and the nest generation) of artificial intelligence.    The book gave us rich material for discussion. Based on the experience of my book club, it is of interest and accessible to people regardless of their level of interest in and understanding of technology.  It is one of my favorite books I read this year.
  4. Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End by Atul Gawande
    I wasn’t looking forward to reading this book, but in the end I was very glad I did.  It is an overview of various approaches to care for people approaching the end of their lives, and what helps, and what doesn’t.  As the title says, it is about what matters in the end.  I’d go as far as saying that most adults over age 40 or so should read it, to start thinking about the issues around life, death, aging, and terminal illness as they start to be inevitable in most families.
  5. The Precious One by Marisa de los Santos
    The strength of this book is in the characters, which I loved.
  6. The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Zevin Gabrielle
    This is a fun choice for reading group discussion because of being a book about books and bookish people.
  7. The Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
  8. American Housewife: Stories by Helen Ellis
  9. Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family by Amy Ellis Nutt
    This is a book about an important current issue, told about a family who never expected to have to face the situation. I particularly liked the balance of their personal story and looks at the research into the science behind gender.  It was ver readable and relateable.
  10. Salt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
    I didn’t know anything about the story of this sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff in WWII.  The story is beautifully told from the perspective of seveal different characters, which lead to an understanding of how many different kinds of people were affected by the war and by this particular incident.
  11. The Girls of Atomic City: The Untold Story of the Women Who Helped Win World War II by Denise Kiernan
    Another book about an aspect of WWII I (and my book club) knew nothing about going in.  This is in the US, the side of the Manhattan Project working with materials. I liked the balance between the personal, the historical and the scientific.  The book lead to great discussion about the time period, about living in a time of war, and about differences between now and then, as well as about the process of writing a book like this.
  12. Paradise Lodge by Nina Stibbe

In the end, there is only one of these 24 books that I don’t think was a good choice for book club discussion.  Even the ones I didn’t comment on generally lead to good conversation, whether we liked them, or just thought they were ok.

I was surprised at how much I liked many of the non-fiction books we read, and how good the discussion was on these.

Anyone have books to recommend for reading (and talking about) in 2017?


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Posted by on January 4, 2017 in Book Club, books, L, M



Book Club choices

It’s once again time to choose books for one of my book clubs. We’re going to choose around 6, and everyone had a chance to make a nomination.  What do you think?  Have you read any of these?  Has your book club discussed them?  What would you choose?



Posted by on August 13, 2012 in Book Club, books, M


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Review: Let’s Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson

Cover: Lets Pretend This Never Happened by Jenny Lawson(With audiobook and book club discussion notes)

My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this book. Not as much as I love the author’s blog, but close. What comes through both places is how wacky the author is, but also how many challenges (internal and external) she has to face.

Synopsis via Goodreads:

When Jenny Lawson was little, all she ever wanted was to fit in. That dream was cut short by her fantastically unbalanced father (a professional taxidermist who created dead-animal hand puppets) and a childhood of wearing winter shoes made out of used bread sacks. It did, however, open up an opportunity for Lawson to find the humor in the strange shame spiral that is her life, and we are all the better for it.

Lawson’s long-suffering husband and sweet daughter are the perfect comedic foils to her absurdities, and help her to uncover the surprising discovery that the most terribly human moments-the ones we want to pretend never happened-are the very same moments that make us the people we are today.

In talking to my book club about the book, I suspect that already knowing Jenny through her blog really helped me at the beginning of the book. I came in already invested in Jenny’s life, and I had some idea where this collection of odd anecdotes were taking me. I think I would have enjoyed them even if I didn’t, but I’ll never know for sure.

It really is when Jenny hits adulthood that the book hits its stride. I’d have to say that starts with the chapter on drugs. I have no personal experience to compare it to, but I felt like I was experiencing her very own reality.

From there, it was a bumpy but engrossing ride. I really liked the balance between the funny stories and those that showed the other dimensions of her character, the echos of the past she had left behind in the future she built for herself.  I like stories like her telling how she and her HR coworkers dealt with men who e-mail photos of a certain part of their anatomy.  I liked the look at how a person can keep going, even after completely breaking.

If swearing bothers you, avoid this book. If you aren’t sure about the humor, read a couple of her blog posts ( If they don’t appeal to you, give this book a miss. If they have you rolling with laughter, rush out to pick it up.

Audiobook Notes

Narrator: Jenny Lawson narrates the book herself, and it is hard to imagine it any other way.  She has an interesting voice, and brings her own personality to the reading.   She does have a very definite accent (Southern/Texan), and some interesting pronunciations, but for me, that just added to the charm.

Production: With the author as the narrator, all things are possible.  She makes minor changes (referring to “this audiobook” rather than “this book”, and works footnotes into her reading), she sings the chapter titles, and generally makes it into an almost conversational experience.  The downside is that you don’t get the photos, the proof that these things really did happen.  Luckily, the author has loaded them on-line.

Print vs. Audio? I loved Let’s Pretend This Never Happened in audio, and would strongly recommend this format for this book.

Book Club Notes

I’m the one that suggested this book for our group to discuss, even though I wasn’t sure everyone would enjoy it.  Still, I was expecting that most people would, and was quite surprised when pretty much no one had finished the book (although there were some reasons involving timing of the meeting that impacted that), and that pretty much everyone else had trouble with the first section of the reading, although several people found it improved for them once they got past the author’s childhood.

Out of the 5 of us at the meeting, one had barely started, two were less than halfway through, one was close to finishing, and I’d finished and even re-listened to parts of it.  This made discussion difficult, particularly since I think that the childhood sections are most interesting in how they influence her as an adult, and we simply didn’t have enough of us that had reached that point.

I still think this could be a good book club selection, but I can’t give any evidence to support that based on our meeting.


Posted by on July 9, 2012 in Book Club, books, L, reviews


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Review: How to Eat a Cupcake by Meg Donohue (with book club notes)

Cover: How to Eat a Cupcake by Meg DonohueMy rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

How to Eat a Cupcake is a wonderful book about truly becoming an adult. It’s about friendship and what makes a family. It’s about starting a business. And it’s about cupcakes.

Summary via

Funny, free-spirited Annie Quintana and sophisticated, ambitious Julia St. Clair come from two different worlds. Yet, as the daughter of the St. Clair’s housekeeper, Annie grew up in Julia’s San Francisco mansion and they forged a bond that only two little girls who know nothing of class differences and scholarships could—until a life-altering betrayal destroyed their friendship.

A decade later, Annie is now a talented, if underpaid, pastry chef who bakes to fill the void left in her heart by her mother’s death. Julia, a successful businesswoman, is tormented by a painful secret that could jeopardize her engagement to the man she loves. When a chance reunion prompts the unlikely duo to open a cupcakery, they must overcome past hurts and a mysterious saboteur or risk losing their fledgling business and any chance of healing their fractured friendship.

When I first read the description of this book (probably not exactly the words above, but something close to it), I thought it would be the light, fluffy, fun kind of woman’s fiction (dare I say– chick lit?). I like light, fluffy, fun books, but chick lit often seems to rub me the wrong way.  I found the description of this book interesting enough to be willing to give it a try anyway.

I’m glad I did. The book is fun, but not the light, fluffy kind, and not the annoying, “why don’t these women just grow up” kind. It’s thoughtful and multilayered, with characters that are real and appealing (some more immediately than others).

Getting to know Annie was easy. She’s worked hard for everything she has, she makes time for friends, and she misses her mother. She’s perhaps a little too open and trusting for her own good, at least where everyone but the St. Claire family is concerned. She’s a genuinely nice person.

Julia is definitely not nice. Driven and successful are (at least in the beginning) the most polite words to describe her. In this, she takes after her own mother. But there is more to her than that, even if she has trouble seeing it herself. Her complicated love life, with a secret she’s waiting for the right time to disclose, isn’t helping. And beginning to realize how her long past behaviour affected her one-time best friend isn’t making her feel any better about her life now.

These women are both still young, but are finally settling into the people they are going to be, and it’s a pleasure to watch them grow.

Equally, I was involved in seeing the process of them building a business together, and watching them figure out why unexpected obstacles (like vandalism) were being thrown in their path.

And reading about the cupcakes themselves was, well, the icing on the cake.

 Book Club Notes

After I accepted this book for review (thank you, Harper Collins!), my friend Ruth nominated it for discussion for one of my book clubs.  I supported it, and enough other people were interested that it was one of the books selected.   I was slightly concerned about the potential fluff factor (our other group has read a few fun books where were enjoyed by all, but there was really not much to say), but was mostly excited about the possibilities.

The concern and excitement both skyrocketed when Ruth (who worked on Meg Donohue’s website) arranged for her to join us at our meeting.  We’ve talked about author visits before, but it has never worked out (way too many authors live on the East Coast, and are in bed before our California book club meets, so even Skype tends to fall through).

Luckily, having Meg visit worked out wonderfully.  We all liked the book (I checked before she arrived), and she was sweet, charming and very interesting.  It was a lot of fun to get definitive answers to some of our questions, and to learn more about the process of writing and publishing a book.  The latter aspect (and the introductions and get to know each other chat) took the place of our usual social time, and I don’t think anyone minded!

The discussion would have gone well even without Meg’s presence.  There was plenty to talk about.  We touched on the characters, their motivations and how we reacted to them; the effect that social class had on the characters, and particularly on the two girls growing up and their relationship; the seamless way that the reader was given information about what was happening; the relative advantages and disadvantages of the various love interests portrayed in the story;  the nature of the friendships and family relationships; the setting of the book and how it is portrayed, even a few individual word choices…

I’d recommend How to Eat a Cupcake for book clubs to read and discuss.


Posted by on May 19, 2012 in books, M, reviews


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Book Club Nominations

Once again, it’s time to pick book club books.

Here are the books we’re choosing from.  Have you discussed any of these with a reading group? How did it go?  Have you read any on your own?  Do you think it would support a discussion?



Posted by on March 28, 2012 in Book Club, L



Review: The Gap Year by Sarah Bird

With Book Club Notes (at the end)

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Oh dear.

The characters and situations seemed so plausible that they have me looking at my daughter’s upcoming high school years with immense terror.

None the less, I very much enjoyed reading this book.

Summary via

From the widely praised author of The Yokota Officers Club and The Flamenco Academy, a novel as hilarious as it is heartbreaking about a single mom and her seventeen-year-old daughter learning how to let go in that precarious moment before college empties the nest.

In The Gap Year, told with perfect pitch from both points of view, we meet Cam Lightsey, lactation consultant extraordinaire, a divorcée still secretly carrying a torch for the ex who dumped her, a suburban misfit who’s given up her rebel dreams so her only child can get a good education.

We also learn the secrets of Aubrey Lightsey, tired of being the dutiful, grade-grubbing band geek, ready to explode from wanting her “real” life to begin, trying to figure out love with boys weaned on Internet porn.

When Aubrey meets Tyler Moldenhauer, football idol–sex god with a dangerous past, the fuse is lit. Late-bloomer Aubrey metastasizes into Cam’s worst silent, sullen teen nightmare, a girl with zero interest in college. Worse, on the sly Aubrey’s in touch with her father, who left when she was two to join a celebrity-ridden nutball cult.

As the novel unfolds—with humor, edge-of-your-seat suspense, and penetrating insights about love in the twenty-first century—the dreams of daughter, mother, and father chart an inevitable, but perhaps not fatal, collision . . .

The keys to this book were the characters, particularly the main mother daughter pair, and the intricate weaving of their stories.

I genuinely liked both Cam and Aubrey, even if I wanted to grab each of them and point out exactly what they were doing to screw up their lives. There were plenty of those times, but in almost every case, I understood where they were coming from. Cam wanted Aubrey to have a better life than she had, and was prepared to pave the path without quite connecting that Aubrey’s ideal situation could be different than her own. Aubrey wanted to break out and make her own decisions, but didn’t know how to go partway. When she rebelled, it was complete.

Both of them were fully well intentioned, as were all the secondary characters, some of which were even more screwed up than Aubrey and Cam. While there were a few tertiary characters this may not be true of, but other than the cult Aubrey’s dad is involved with, there are no real bad guys, just flawed human beings. That’s something I liked about the book.

The depth of the confusion between Cam and Aubrey is pointed out in their alternating chapters. Cam’s chapters are set in the book’s present; Aubrey’s are almost a year earlier. The author does an amazing job of interweaving the two narratives. I could see the situation as it is through Cam’s eyes, I saw how it got that way through Aubrey’s. Neither of them has a full understanding of the situation, and with the dual narration, it’s easy to see why.

All in all, this was an interesting and thought provoking read.

Book Club Notes

All of us enjoyed the book.  Some of us related to it more than the rest. I could see echoes of my own relationship with my daughter, others have children about ready to head for college.  Even those that didn’t feel a personal connection to the characters still appreciated the book.

We discussed the characters, the situations, and how real they seemed.  We talked about the construction of the story, and how that contributed to our understanding.  I think we all admired the writing.  We spent some time trying to nail down the setting.

All in all, it was a good discussion, and I’d recommend this book.

My book club won copies of this book via a TLC Book Tours Book Club giveaway.

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Posted by on March 5, 2012 in Book Club, books, M, reviews


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Review: Divergent by Veronica Roth

With Book Club Notes
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Summary via Veronica Roth’s website:

In Beatrice Prior’s dystopian Chicago, society is divided into five factions, each dedicated to the cultivation of a particular virtue—Candor (the honest), Abnegation (the selfless), Dauntless (the brave), Amity (the peaceful), and Erudite (the intelligent). On an appointed day of every year, all sixteen-year-olds must select the faction to which they will devote the rest of their lives. For Beatrice, the decision is between staying with her family and being who she really is—she can’t have both. So she makes a choice that surprises everyone, including herself.

During the highly competitive initiation that follows, Beatrice renames herself Tris and struggles to determine who her friends really are—and where, exactly, a romance with a sometimes fascinating, sometimes infuriating boy fits into the life she’s chosen. But Tris also has a secret, one she’s kept hidden from everyone because she’s been warned it can mean death. And as she discovers a growing conflict that threatens to unravel her seemingly perfect society, she also learns that her secret might help her save those she loves… or it might destroy her.

First and foremost, Divergent tells a darn good story! While reading it, I wasn’t worrying about potential weaknesses, I just wanted to keep going to see what happened next.

Divergent features a future society with a very rigorous structure. It’s an intriguing world, one that kept me thinking long after finishing the book.  I wanted to know how it came about, how it functioned, and where the books are going to take it.  That’s enough to set the book apart from the crowd, but not enough in and of itself to make the book compelling.

Luckily, the characters are enough.  Beatrice was a convincing as a teen needing to move from childhood to adulthood, a transition marked with a choice which cannot be undone. Beatrice chooses to break from her family to join another faction, one that demands courage above all else.

Relationships are key in Divergent, existing relationships and relationships that are formed in her new life. The characters (friends and otherwise) are an interesting bunch, each with their own approach, whether it be in Abnegation (her old faction) or Dauntless (her new one).

Watching her meet and evaluate the other teens looking to join this faction is full of information on Beatrice, the other newcomers, and what it means to be Dauntless.  Seeing Beatrice’s perception of her parents and their choices change as she learns more was a great way to watch Beatrice mature.

And then, there is the love interest.  He’s a worthy character, and the this aspect of the book is balanced well with everything else that is happening.

Midway into Divergent, Beatrice’s story becomes part of a much larger one, where her decisions will affect more than her own life.  The action picked up significantly at this point.  I’ll be interested to see where this goes in the next book,

I have two small caveats to my enjoyment of this book, things that I hesitate to label as flaws, at least at this time.

First, Divergent is unabashedly a YA book, written for that audience. Although it clearly made sense for the main character to be a teen, I’m not sure that’s true for some of the supporting characters, particularly those in leadership roles. More than that, as a not-so-young adult, I would have liked to see life from a different perspective, to see what it looked like from a more adult point of view. There were many aspects of the society, particularly of the logistics, that were invisible to the teen characters, where I would have liked to know more.

Related to that, there were clearly some holes in the world-building. As I said, the world is a highly intriguing one, and I’m not even sure I should mention this in a negative way. The gaps didn’t bother me at all while I was reading. It was only once I was done, and thinking over the book, that I started wondering more about why the society was structured the way it was. I actually came up with some very intriguing possibilities. If the author takes some of the clues she left and builds on them in future books, I’ll be more than satisfied with this aspect of the story.

Book Club Notes

I read Divergent for discussion with one of my book clubs, and I think it was a successful choice.  The club has a balance of people that read YA but not science fiction, those that read science fiction but not a lot of YA, those that don’t usually read either, and those of us that read from both of those genres, including where they overlap.

Everyone enjoyed the book.  Those with a background that includes more adult science fiction were bothered by the holes in the world-building, where it wasn’t an issue for others in the group.  I shared some of my speculation on why the holes may be deliberate, what I thought might be lurking behind them, but I’m not sure they were convinced.

We spent a good chunk of time on the factions– are they a complete set?  Are they sustainable?  Are the believable at all?  What were they like at the beginning, and how had they changed?  Which faction would you fall into?  Which would you like to be part of?

We also talked about violence in this book, and in YA fiction in general.  Added to some character chat, discussion of the author, and then of some material one club member found about how society is increasingly sorting itself, so that we only associate with those that are like us, and we had a very good discussion.


Posted by on February 14, 2012 in Book Club, books, L, reviews


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