Posts Tagged ‘Book Club Books’

April 2015 Must-Reads

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

April 2015 Must-Reads

April was another fantastic month of reading and I am excited to share the April Must-Reads list from the books I tackled this month. I hope that you are also following along with my Sundays With Writers series where I interview the authors about their books and try to find out more about their stories behind the stories. This series happens to be my favorite and it is such a treat to share why they created their books.  I will be sure to share below any interviews that have happened (or will be happening) so you can enjoy them after the book.

Speaking of interviews, I can now say that I have interviewed a Pulitzer Prize winning author! A big congratulations to Anthony Doerr on his win for All the Light We Cannot See. It was such an honor to interview him last year about this book and, and after penning it for an entire decade, it is worthy of every accolade it has received. Be sure to check it out!

I think it is important to be honest. Sometimes books just don’t make the must-read cut, but I want to mention them anyway, as we all have our cups of literature tea.  These two that didn’t make it are well-written, but I did not love them.  I read this book and this book this month, but didn’t feel like these were must-reads for you.

This one definitely gave me a lot to think about, but it took it to a level that I wouldn’t feel comfortable recommending it to a lot of people.  It was, frankly, the most graphically disturbing book I have ever read. I am no prude. I read these (and they were terrible). Nutting exposes the sensationalized topic of female teachers pursuing teens for sexual relationships for what it is…pedophilia. Through this narcissistic sociopath’s eyes, we are able to see exactly what type of child a teacher would target, how she would initiate a relationship, and how she permanently and unapologetically ruins children for their future relationships. The writing is on-point, but the unnecessary pushing of the sexual envelope, lowered the rating for me, as it did not move the plot forward and seemed instead to intentionally shock the reader. Compared to Lolita & American Psycho, the author truly creates the most unlikable character you might ever read.

This book was one that everyone was raving and raving about and I read it just because everyone said it was so fantastic.  It was beautifully written although a much slower read than I had expected after hearing such great things.  The premise is that when a birthday party is held in an unnamed South American country, a famous soprano opera singer sings at a birthday party in honor of a visiting Japanese industrial titan. The party is interrupted when 18 terrorists enter the vice-presidential mansion in hopes to hold the president hostage. Unfortunately, the president never showed up because he was watching his favorite soap opera, defeating the purpose of the terrorist visit. Instead, they hold the people from the party hostage to try to get their demands met and what develops are unexpected relationships between the party guests and even the guests with their captures.  The book developed the characters well, but I felt hostage too when the plot did not drive itself forward enough for me. If the book had been scaled back in pages, I would have enjoyed it so much more. That said, it read more like a play to me more than a book as this is such a character-driven piece all taking place in one setting.  I would recommend this one for readers who love REALLY slow builds and rich characters, but it did not make the must-read cut. I know, I know…throw rotten tomatoes wildly at me! Am I missing something? I know there are people out there loving this one so tell me what in the world is wrong with me and why you love it so much!

Let’s move on to the things I think you SHOULD read!

The Life Intended by Kristin Harmel

The Life Intended by Kristin Harmel

This book was charming from start to finish. I am a big fan of books that explore the what-if’s in life and this one does it beautifully. When Kate loses her husband in a tragic accident she finally feels like she can move forward in a new relationship twelve years later. When her husband begins to visit her in her dreams though, she begins to fall into an alternate universe where the lines between reality and imagination are blurred.

One of my  favorite movies is Sliding Doors and this book reminded me so much of that movie. Harmel truly explores what does it take to move forward in life without forgetting your past.

In this story, Kate blames her lack of sleep on stress. But when she starts seeing Patrick, her late husband, in her dreams, she begins to wonder if she’s really ready to move on. Is Patrick trying to tell her something? Attempting to navigate between dreams and reality, Kate must uncover her husband’s hidden message. Her quest leads her to a sign language class and into the New York City foster system, where she finds rewards greater than she could have imagined.

This is the best piece of chick lit I have read this year and would highly recommend for anyone who needs a little reading escape! I have been telling everyone to escape with this one and I keep hearing how much they loved it too. It’s one I would be packing in my beach bag this summer, for sure!

5 Out of 5 Stars

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

All the Bright Places by Jennifer Niven

What a beautiful story of two sweet kids who find each other just when they need one another the most. Niven sheds light on a topic rarely discussed in YA literature sharing the true struggles of mental illness as Finch, the main character, struggles with bipolar disorder.

Theodore Finch is fascinated by death, and he constantly thinks of ways he might kill himself. But each time, something good, no matter how small, stops him.

Violet Markey lives for the future, counting the days until graduation, when she can escape her Indiana town and her aching grief in the wake of her sister’s recent death.

When Finch and Violet meet on the ledge of the bell tower at school, it’s unclear who saves whom. And when they pair up on a project to discover the “natural wonders” of their state, both Finch and Violet make more important discoveries: It’s only with Violet that Finch can be himself—a weird, funny, live-out-loud guy who’s not such a freak after all. And it’s only with Finch that Violet can forget to count away the days and start living them. But as Violet’s world grows, Finch’s begins to shrink.

The stigma attached to mental illness and the reaction of his peers to this, make this a compelling read for any teen in understanding what it would be like to live with mental illness. This was heartbreaking, beautiful, and provided a thoughtful ending with a great resources & info list for kids struggling with (or who have family/friends struggling with) mental illness at the end of the book. I highly recommend this one for a well-captured idea of what living with bipolar disorder would feel like.

Jennifer Niven will be joining me for a future Sundays With Writers so be sure to check back for that interview as we chat about mental illness in teens and her first YA book (that we will soon be able to see Elle Fanning starring in the movie adaptation of!!).

4 Out of 5 Stars

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll (currently available for pre-order, hits stores on May 12th!)

I received an ARC from NetGalley for my honest thoughts & opinions on this book.

How can this book not be on your top list? The title has GIRL in it (like this, and this, and this…), Gillian Flynn’s name is dropped on the front cover for the endorsement, the narrator is unlikable, AND Reese Witherspoon will be producing the movie version of this book (only just recently announced). I’d say this has a winning combination for this to be the book that everyone will be talking about this summer.

Much like other thriller books, I don’t want to give away the plot too much so that you have the satisfaction of discovering the twists yourself. Ani is a girl who never has the ability to fit in at her prestigious private school, no matter how many brand name clothes her mother buys her. When Ani intrigues the popular kids, they decide to invite her in and Ani discovers, maybe it was better to have never been a part of the group at all. In a horrible turn of events, she finds solace in another kid at school that will, ultimately, change the destiny of the school and the kids in it forever.

The book flashes back to Ani’s painful teen years and then alternates chapters as they film a documentary about what happened at their school and how much happier Ani is now that she is working at a high-profile magazine, beautiful, thin, and has the guy of her dreams. Of course, things are never as good as they seem and getting to the root of why Ani is so unlikable helps the reader to connect more as the story progresses despite the excruciating shallowness and weight obsession of this woman.

With just the right amount of sass to balance the darkness of this book (think Gillian Flynn for how dark we get), this read is a quick page-turner that I can’t wait to see adapted into film.

5 Out of 5 Stars

I'll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson

This book is achingly beautiful in so many ways exploring the beauty and anguish of first loves. This story is uniquely told by a twin sister & brother, alternating chapters, yet one is telling the story three years later while the other is telling the story as it happens. It creates a journey experience for the reader when characters begin to overlap together in these stories.

Jude and her twin brother, Noah, are incredibly close. At thirteen, isolated Noah draws constantly and is falling in love with the charismatic boy next door, while daredevil Jude cliff-dives and wears red-red lipstick and does the talking for both of them. But three years later, Jude and Noah are barely speaking. Something has happened to wreck the twins in different and dramatic ways . . . until Jude meets a cocky, broken, beautiful boy, as well as someone else—an even more unpredictable new force in her life. The early years are Noah’s story to tell. The later years are Jude’s. What the twins don’t realize is that they each have only half the story, and if they could just find their way back to one another, they’d have a chance to remake their world.

Nelson’s words read like watching a painting unravel on a page, as though it all is coming to life, especially when told through artistic Noah’s eyes as his words are the most visually vivid. Nelson beautifully paints the portrait of the typical teenage angst of Jude & Noah, while focusing strongly on the difficulties of being a gay teen and the hostility of classmates that force Noah to try to fit in with his peers.

I laughed and cried through the pages of this one especially because I have never read a writer like this, making me Nelson’s latest fan. It really surprised me in so many ways. I would recommend it for fans of Rainbow Rowell or John Green.

Read my interview with Jandy Nelson in our Sundays With Writers series this month!

5 Out of 5 Stars

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler

The Book of Speculation by Erika Swyler (available for pre-order, hits stores on June 23rd)

I received an ARC from NetGalley for my honest thoughts and opinions on this book.

I knew I was going to love this book because it had so many ingredients in it for success with me- librarians, old books, a bit of magic, and a glimpse at the old carnival life. The book has been compared to Water For Elephants and Night Circus, but definitely stands on its own and is an ambitious debut novel from this first-time author. When Simon, a young librarian, receives the gift of a book that is a travel log for a carnival in the 1700’s, he discovers a drowning death of a circus mermaid that is coincidental to his own mother’s drowning death (a former circus mermaid herself) that happened even on the same day. If their family is cursed, his sister could be the next victim and he will do anything to save her. The chapters alternate between the travel log (complete with unique sketch drawings) and present day as Simon tries to stop the curse on his family. The author manages to bring these stories together in a beautiful way with a satisfying conclusion to these mysterious drownings.

This was definitely a slower read for me and the length could have been shortened a bit, as the plot lagged a bit for me. The sketches, however, add a fun interactive element for the reader and help keep you engaged in the story. If you appreciate a good circus story with a modern-day mystery, you will enjoy this escape. I imagine there will be a lot of buzz surrounding this book this summer.

4 Out of 5 Stars

April 2015 Must-Reads

Read With Me This Year:

January 2015 Must-Reads

February 2015 Must-Reads

March 2015 Must-Reads

What should I be adding to my library bag?  Leave your suggestions in the comments below! Looking for book ideas? Check out our entire Book section of the site! Don’t forget to friend me on GoodReads! xo

*this post may contain affiliate links- I only recommend what I love though.

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March Book Club Selection: A White Wind Blew by James Markert

Friday, February 28th, 2014

A White Wind Blew by James Markert

As I turned the final pages of, “A White Wind Blew,” I knew immediately that this would be a fantastic book for our book club discussion. The book covers so many issues including religion, racism, prohibition, war, the power of music, friendship, illness, and love.

Markert is a screenwriter and the book reads with the cinematic quality of a beautiful film. He also has a history degree from the University of Louisville and, with this background, it is evident that the details he includes in this book really shine.

Dr. Wolfgang Pike practices at Waverly Hills, a tuberculosis sanitarium in Jefferson County, Kentucky. He is a theological student from Saint Meinrad Abbey and is continuing to study to be a priest while practicing as a doctor at the clinic.  Music and his former love, named Rose, are the center of his life and he still mourns the loss of her daily. He has been working on a requiem for her that he just cannot seem to finish in his evenings, never able to fully bring this piece to a close. During the day though, he visits his patients and uses music therapy to help ease their pain and relax them, despite the belief of his boss that this is a waste of time.

When a former concert pianist checks in, he begins to believe that he will be able to help him finish this requiem to Rose. With his help and an unlikely choir of singers and musicians in the hospital, he begins to see the transformative power of music on these patients and what these times of practice mean to them. Unfortunately, not everyone believes this is a good idea. When Wolfgang finds a musician from the colored hospital to participate, during a time where racism runs rampant, many lives are threatened while unlikely friendships & relationships are formed.

James Markert

James Markert is a debut novelist and screenwriter, which is why his writing feels oh-so-cinematic. James  lives in Louisville, Kentucky with his wife and two children. He has a history degree from the University of Louisville, where, in his senior year, he was honored as the school’s most outstanding history major. He won an IPPY Award for The Requiem Rose, published by Butler Books.

With Requiem’s local success, James was signed by Writers House Literary Agency in New York, and the book was sold to Sourcebooks, Landmark in January 2012. Rewritten and retitled, it became A White Wind Blew.  James is currently working on his next novel, The Strange Case of Isaac Crawley, a story that takes place in the late nineteenth century and involves the theater scene, a lunatic asylum, and the theatrical version of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde…and possibly a few gaslights, cobblestones, and an eerie fog.

He runs his own blog called Markert Ink where you can read about some of his thoughts on books and writing. I know you will want to become a fan after you read this one and you can follow James on Twitter!

James Markert has graciously offered three of our readers the chance to win his book. He has also offered to answer your questions, which I could not be more excited about! 

To enter to win a copy of, “A White Wind Blew,” please enter via the Rafflecopter widget below!  Just leave us a comment and let us know your thoughts on our book club and book club selections so far! 

MomAdvice Book Club

Our book club discussion for this novel will take place on March 25th. I will try to collect your questions for the author before that though via our Facebook groupSign up for our newsletter to stay informed and connect with me on GoodReads too!

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February Book Club Discussion With the Author: A Constellation of Vital Phenomena

Tuesday, February 25th, 2014

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra

I am so excited to discuss our MomAdvice Book Club pick, A Constellation of a Vital Phenomena with you. I am doubly excited that Anthony Marra has agreed to answer our questions about his astonishing debut novel with you.

With a book of this gravity, it is hard to know where to begin in our discussion. First, I want to thank you all for participating in this month’s selection.  I know that we had two historical fiction books that centered upon wartime topics, but once I began to read this book, I knew from Marra’s beautiful writing that this would be a book worth discussing with you all.

Let’s begin with our cast of characters in this book, as there are many, all of them offering much importance to this storyline and beautifully woven together at the end of our story.

The Cast of Characters


Sonja: An amazingly talented doctor who is almost singlehandedly carrying for the wounded at an abandoned hospital. Sonja is consumed with worry and grief over the loss of her sister, Natasha, who has disappeared.

Akmed: The neighbor who discovers Havaa in the woods and offers his services as a doctor in exchange for Havaa’s safety at the hospital. We later learn in the story of why Akmed is so motivated to save Havaa.  Of course, we also soon discover that Akmed is more of a dreamer and artist than a doctor, but he offers his services nonetheless. He is also husband to Ula, who has dementia and is completely reliant on Akmed to care for her.

Havaa: Is the eight-year-old child that is saved by Akmed when her father is taken by the Russian military, leaving her without her father and her home. She has now become the target of the Russian military and Akmed has volunteered to keep her safe. Although Havaa is at the center of our story, her storyline isn’t as deep as many of the other characters. Her suitcase that she carries, however, holds a secret that weave some of our characters together.

Natasha: Sonja’s beautiful younger sister is truly a victim of war.  She becomes a victim of sex-trafficking, a drug addict, and is dealing with PTSD after all she has been through. We follow Natasha through both of her disappearances and discover the outcome of both of those, although Sonja never does.

Khassam: Is a scholarly elder neighbor and friend to Akmed and became one of the most endearing characters to me. Khassam writes a book on Chechnya and its history, yet only gets a fraction of his thousands upon thousands of pages published. He is in a nonexistent relationship with his son because his son has become an informant. His best friends have now become a pack of feral dogs.  While Akmed is at the hospital, he visits Akmed’s wife and shares his life story to the one person who will never remember them, due to her failing mind.

Ramzan: Is Khassam’s son and, perhaps, one of the most complex characters in the book. Ramzan has become an informant after two times of brutal torture.  He is the one who has turned in his friends & neighbors to keep his own safety and protect his father.  He is the boy that never felt loved and is still hated even when he feels he is, “doing the right thing,” for his family.

Dokka: Is Havaa’s father and a good friend of Khassam & Akmed.  Dokka has suffered horrible mutilation when he is tortured during this war.  He is a kind soul that takes in refugees during the war.  He is abducted by Russian soldiers in the opening chapter and accused of aiding Chechen rebels.  He is not a central character to this story, as those above are, but his story does weave into these other six characters in some unexpected ways.

Now that we have all of our characters, let’s delve into this book more!  As a reader, we were able to follow the timeline from 1994-2004 as it moved forwards and backwards through time, taking the reader on a journey of what each of these characters went through during the war and how it had impacted each of them as people.  

In this novel, two doctors risk everything to save the life of a hunted child named Havaa.  Havaa is just eight years old when her neighbor Akhmed finds her hiding in the woods, watching her house burning down. Akhmed knows getting involved means risking his life, but her father is an old friend, and he risks it all deciding to take her to an abandoned hospital where a woman named Sonja Rabina runs a hospital almost single handedly.

Sonja does not love kids…at all. Akhmed convinces her to keep Havaa for a trial, and over the course of five extraordinary days, Sonja’s world will change in ways she never imagined. The reader is taken on a journey through each of these character’s past on an extraordinary journey of love, loss, and ultimately what it means to be human.

I found myself completely swept away into each of these characters and what they had to overcome.  Although the book was about war and suffering, the book was also all about love and what we do for love.

This entire book was so beautiful that I reread some of the scenes over again. For example, the scenes when Natasha finally has some happiness and purpose when delivering babies in the hospital, brought me a lot of joy as a reader. The scenes when Khassam goes to visit Ula to tell her his secrets because he knows her failing mind will never remember them truly moved me to tears. The beautifully drawn portraits that Akhmed drew that hung in the street deeply moved me as a reader.

Everything about this book seemed to have significance and meaning. In previous interviews, Marra has described how he settled upon, “A Constellation of Phenomena,” as his title.  In an interview he states, “One day I looked up the definition of life in a medical dictionary and found a surprisingly poetic entry: “A constellation of vital phenomena—organization, irritability, movement, growth, reproduction, adaptation.” As biological life is structured as a constellation of six phenomena, the narrative life of this novel is structured as a constellation of six point-of-view characters.”

The reader quickly realizes that every word is precious and every sequence of events will later have meaning and be woven together. Marra frequently writes of what we can expect to come from these characters and even clues us in on their longevity through an omniscient voice that help us sometimes know whether we should get too attached or worried about the next scenes outcome.

When Marra brings it all together, it is beautiful and surprisingly hopeful, especially when we learn of the fate of the beautiful Havva.

MomAdvice Book Club

I am so honored that Anthony Marra has agreed to speak with us today, to share more about this amazing book. You can become a fan of Anthony Marra on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.

Anthony Marra is the winner of a Whiting Award, a Pushcart Prize, The Atlantic‘s Student Writing Contest, and the Narrative Prize, and his work has been anthologized in Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012. He holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and is currently a Jones Lecturer in Fiction at Stanford University. His first novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, was published in May 2013 and will be translated into over a dozen languages.

In short, he is a big deal, and he is talking with us today! 

Anthony Marra

Questions for Anthony Marra

I understand that this novel began as a short story called, “Chechyna.”  At what point did you feel that this short story was actually a novel and what did a process like this entail for you as a writer?

Nearly as soon as I finished the short story, I realized that the characters, their pasts and futures, stretched much farther than a twenty-five page piece of short fiction could contain. In the short story, I’d only just crossed the border into a land that fascinated, perplexed, and moved me. The next several years were my attempts to explore that land more deeply and draw a map of what I had found.

Many times as a reader we are clued in on the fates of these characters, even during pivotal scenes, which is a rarity as a reader. Was this style of omniscient narrating difficult to flesh out since you had to know how these characters stories would develop?

My writing process is largely based on retyping. As soon as I finished the first draft of Constellation, I printed it out, dropped it in front of my keyboard, and retyped the book from the first word on, and did this a number of times until I had a final draft. I find this useful for a few reasons. First, it forces you to go through the book at a glacial pace, meaning you end up noticing both the inconsistencies and the small resonances you might miss if you were moving through the book at a rate of more than a page an hour. Second, it tricks your mind into returning to the same creative well from which the sentences first emerged, letting the language change organically from the inside out, rather than through the transposition of red-pen edits. Third, and most important, you begin to see the scene both as you write it, and through your earlier imaginings. There was a David Hockney exhibition here in San Francisco a few months back, and there were entire walls of the same landscape painted again and again, in different seasons and different mediums. One of the placards said that Hockney believes he sees the landscape more clearly the more times he paints it, because he’s seeing it not only through his eyes, but through his memory.

I had a similar experience writing this book. Up until the fourth retyping of it, the novel was told in a very limited third person perspective. The reader never knew or saw beyond a single character per chapter. But the fourth time through, I felt like I knew the scenes so well that my eye began to wander away from the main characters to minor characters I hadn’t paid much attention to before. In a sentence I projected the future of a character who only appears in the book for the space of a paragraph. It felt like a big bang right in the middle of the book. Suddenly the story seemed like it could be much larger, more inclusive, really trying to wrap the covers around as much of this world as it could encompass. And I realized that I wanted to tell a story in which there were no minor characters. Just about every character, no matter how minor, gets their sentence in the spotlight.

The weaving and gathering of six characters together really brought these stories together for me as a reader.  How hard was it to pull these six characters together for you as a writer? Did you always know how they would interweave?

I knew from the beginning that if I was going to write about the Chechen conflict, it couldn’t be a novel with a traditional beginning, middle, and end. Violence has broken these characters sense of time and narrative. Yet they’re all trying to piece their lives together, to recover what’s been lost, and while they often don’t succeed, by attempting to rescue their past they instead create new and unexpectedly meaningful present. I wanted the novel to embody at a structural level this central act of its characters, mending their individual stories into a communal whole.

While writing the first draft, I had a final page in mind that I was writing toward. Even though I ultimately decided to go with a different ending, it gave me a destination, a concrete point in the future of the novel that I had to get to, even if I didn’t really know the way. Sometimes I knew characters would interweave fifty pages in advance, other times it wasn’t until I was in the midst of writing a scene. A novel contains not only a writer’s thoughts, to paraphrase Marilynne Robinson, but also a pretty good blueprint for how a writer thinks. As a writer, I tend to find myself tuning into the echoes trapped between narratives, and using those echoes as the connective tissue to build the kind of mega-story made up of many small stories that feels a lot like life as I experience it.

Natasha and Ramzan both find themselves as prisoners a second time. When faced with the reoccurrence of this, Natasha sacrifices herself while Ramzan sacrifices those around him to save himself.  Were you able to sympathize with both of these characters and why they made the choices they did?

That’s a great question, and yes, I found both characters very sympathetic. Ramzan, the ostensible villain of the book, probably has more of my empathy than any other character. He’s more or less an average person placed in very difficult conditions. A place like Chechnya in this time period magnifies moral choice. Because the stakes are so high, the smallest betrayal can lead to tragic consequences. Were Ramzan to live in America, his ethical failures would probably result in nothing more calamitous than, say, lying on his CV. So I felt it was important to portray his experience without any kind of authorial judgment. The ability to recognize ourselves in a character like Ramzan makes his betrayals all the more harrowing.

Natasha, when confronted with different but no less difficult choices, decides to resist because she reaches a point at which she values her dignity more than she values her survival. If placed in those circumstance, I think we’d all like to believe we’d have her courage. More likely, we’d have his fear.

What do you have in store for us with your next book?

Well, I’d initially thought I’d packed my bags and head to warmer climes after Constellation. Instead, I ended up in the Arctic Circle, working on a book that revolves around a 19th-century landscape painting, and the lives of those who alter, repaint, buy, lose, receive, and restore the painting, along with those who live and die on the plot of land it portrays.

Thank you to Anthony Marra for joining us today in our book club discussion. Isn’t he amazing? I was so honored that he took our questions on his book!


What did you think of The Constellation of Vital Phenomena? Did you like the omniscient narrative in this one? Which storyline moved you the most?  Share your thoughts on our  book club pick below and offer recommendations for what you might like to see on our list in the upcoming year!


Our next book club pick will be announced on February 28th- stay tuned! In the meantime, catch up on what is happening this year and explore our past book club selections here!

This post does contain affiliate links! 

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