Wednesday, December 28, 2011

New books and 2012 suggestions

As we stare down the rumblings of another year, we bravely face the need to clean, reorganize, list goals and promise things will be different.
Poo on that.
Let’s just read more good books and be done with it.
Fellow readers suggest these titles. I’ve included some of them here, and also a listing of relatively recent releases that promise to, at least, entertain or inform us.

Millbury’s Roving Readers nominate “Power of One,” by Bryce Courteney. While its title raises the image of a self-help book, this is a novel about a boy, during a war. It’s reputed to be “the classic novel of South Africa.” I have some reservations about that, but time will tell. It sounds fascinating: As World War II darkens the globe, apartheid begins to unleash itself in South Africa, where Peekay is born, abandoned, cruelly treated. He vows to escape his bonds through heroic plots and takes a journey through the land, with its tribal superstitions and modern prejudices, learning that words have the power to transform lives.

Several groups liked Meg Waite Clayton’s “The Wednesday Sisters,” which is right up all of our alleys, being a novel about a book club. Its members’ tight bonds, their personal growth and support for each other, enrich the story.

Several folks, mostly locals, or residents who’ve ventured elsewhere, responded to a request for “one terrific read.” I repeat their suggestions here, without prejudice:
Jenn Fenn Lefferts: “Unbroken,” a favorite in several book clubs, is an extraordinary nonfiction narrative of survival by Laura Hillenbrand, author of the popular “Seabiscuit.”
Beth Antos: You can expect a lot of prose in “Pillars of the Earth,” Ken Follett’s humongous work about intrigue and mayhem in the building of a 12th century cathedral (still being aired on public television). Wikipedia can help you keep the characters straight as you read this big boy of a book.
Barb Chapman: “Affinity,” by Sarah Waters, (“The Little Stranger,” “Fingersmith)” is about a late-1800s spinster in London who reacts to grievous loss by taking on charity work at a prison for women. It’s a historical novel, offering much appetite-whetting emotional conflict for book club members.
Al Tuttle: An overlooked novel (published in 1968, again in 2003), “It Happened in Boston?” is Russell H. Greenan’s amazing story of a brilliant, unhinged artist who strives to meet God face-to-face, seeking only to destroy Him. Unforgettable characterization and many plot twists that shock. An “underground” classic, it’s a fascinating read.
Elizabeth Marble: This reader prefers classics like Charles Dickens’ “Bleak House” and “Great Expectations,” and suggests Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” a sci-fi tale in which women are subjugated under a totalitarian theocracy after the United States government is overthrown. It explores themes of women in subjugation and their means of escaping it.
Amy Brenner-Fricke: Wally Lamb’s books (“She’s Come Undone,” “I Know This Much is True,” and “The Hour I First Believed”). Lamb looks for what is most real beneath the assumptions we make about others, whether it’s the behavior of a schizophrenic brother or the cutting humor of a young woman on the road to obesity. In “The Hour …” he confronts doubts about God and hope. I’d suggest as well “Couldn’t Keep it to Myself,” written by his female writing students at the York Correctional institution in Connecticut. Again there are powerful voices and moments of hope.
Diane Brown: suggests that Jane Austen is always a good read. Thousands of readers agree.
Michele Callan: Gail Tsukigama’s “Dreaming Water,” published in 2003, is a rich, multi-layered story about a mother and daughter, and two lifelong friends. The story surrounds Cate, recently widowed, her cares for her daughter, Hana, who has Werner’s syndrome, which ages a person at twice the normal rate.
Mary Montalvo recommends Ed Sutter’s “Patient 13.” This novel deals with the reverse of Hana’s aging disease. When an experiment results in an elderly alcoholic becoming physically younger, he flees the lab, only to be found by a therapist who uncovers centuries of memories in the man. Of course, those who could profit by it are after Patient 13’s blood. It’s sci fi, something many clubs don’t delve into, and may be a nice break.

The following recently published books may appeal to clubs seeking fresh reads:
Every Day by the Sun.” Dean Faulkner Wells—whose guardian and uncle was the famed author William Faulkner—published her memoir last spring, shortly before her death. She wrote of her life with William Faulkner, whom she called “Pappy.”
Then Again.” Actress Diane Keaton published this memoir in mid-November. It is about her mother and herself. Mom filled 85 journals during her life. So the real-life “Annie Hall” steps forward to reveal her mother, Dorothy Hall. Keaton’s portrait is candid, a memoir of four generations in her family. It’s also the story of her mother, restless and full of creative energy, seeking an outlet for her own talents.
It Chooses You.” Screenwriter Miranda July traveled around Los Angeles to meet strangers she found in the local PennySaver. For real. Her experiences resulted in these essays about strangers, as well as an artist’s experiences with procrastination, boredom and making art.
11/22/63.” They say good fiction begins with the question, “What if?” Stephen King’s latest, published Nov. 8, asks what if President John Kennedy could be saved from assassination by time-travel? Well, why not? King’s always unique, and we eagerly await this tale.
Damned.” The author of “Fight Club” released this in late October.
There was a popular cartoon strip in the Sunday funnies during my youth, Hatlo’s Inferno, that showed people in Hell, enduring various forms of punishment. It was grim. Palahniuk is well capable of outdoing Hatlo, and “Damned” is his look at Hell through the eyes of, unbelievably, as 13-year-old girl who finds herself there after death.

How do you keep members involved in your book club, and how do you seek new members? Share the details by contacting Ann Frantz at Catch up on earlier columns and other reading tidbits at (yes, two ee’s in reeap).

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Midnight in the Garden of Should and Sequel

So P.D. James has decided to bring "Death" to Pemberly, Jane Austen's setting for the gentility, romance and beloved characters of "Pride and Prejudice."
Here we go again.
Scarlett O'Hara found true happiness with Rhett Butler in Alexandra Ripley's sequel to "Gone With the Wind."
Holden Caulfield, the perennial adolescent of "Catcher in the Rye," became an old man in "Coming Through the Rye," a book legally challenged by J.D. Salinger, author of the original; it was eventually--glad to hear it--limited to publication across the water in Great Britain.
They're called "derivative" works, and I dislike them.
When an author creates and peoples a fictional world, using years of time and learning to do it, why should all that simply be lifted for use by an up-and-comer writer (with the exception of James, who has earned her own stripes)?
And, in reverse, why would a writer want to spend so much time reworking someone else's creation?
I learned this the hard way.
When I was 11 or 12, assigned to write a novel over the weekend, I sat down with enthusiasm and ideas to write my very own Nancy Drew mystery. Having been a fan of the Cherry Ames nursing series, I had noticed two listed authors, Helen Wells and Julie Tatham (also the creator of Trixie Belden). Tatham picked up the series after Wells turned to new projects.
Great idea, I thought. I could do that. I'd use the same framework but write my own story.

My English teacher didn't agree. She slammed a bright red D- on top, and added scathing comments about plagiarism.
It hadn't even occurred to me that I had taken someone else's work, in the sense that I used it. I was so embarrassed, and so young and ready to cry, that I never explained the idea and the original storyline I'd created to the instructor. Sad that she didn't bother to talk with me about it.
Perhaps that was the impetus to my dislike of derivative works. The old envy bean growing in my garden--Wah; I couldn't do it, so why should they?!)
But I suspect it's more about quality control.
More than one critic has said it, and I agree: these so-called sequels aren't as good as the original--meaning, they're lame. They're not as interesting, as authentic or as well-written. In truth, they're more like cold leftover pizza served on the literary table. Bleah!
As a writer, I can't stomach the idea that someone might take a character I created and turn her into an adult psychopath, a naughty librarian or any other incarnation that I didn't intend. I can only imagine how upset these developments would make Martha Mitchell (whose family authorized a sequel), Austen or Salinger.
And they're not the only ones. Lately, flipping books like hot properties seems the in thing to do. Are publishers encouraging this? Possibly. There is certainly a lot of promotional effort behind some of them.
But I see it as yet another step in the erosion of copyrights, as well as capitalizing on someone else's justly earned fame to sell a book.
I get parody and satirical or political takes on the old favorites. Even simplifying the classics for modern or younger consumption rings true. These efforts are not the same thing as going beyond what is perhaps the most famous ending in literature to revisit that "tomorrow" of Scarlet's thoughts. Frankly, I do give a damn. So just don't do it.
I don't want to meet Heathcliff on a motorcycle or Emma Woodhouse stuffed into a slinky bra and high heels as a modern-day hooker. Anyone contemplating those directions is invited to amputate their keyboard fingers.
What's wrong with using one's own ideas in a book?
Camping out in a famous author's yard this way is nothing more than selling cheap trinkets on the steps of a famous museum. They might have a moment's attractive appeal, but they lose it fast at home.
So give me Emma in Austen's own writing, and give me Heathcliff in the dark, deranged manner Emily Bronte wrote him. It was her only novel, for pete's sake--leave it alone.
And now, I must return to my new novel: "Midnight in the Garden of Should and Sequel."

Friday, December 2, 2011

A Mark Twain Christmas in Hartford

Besides the book group holiday meeting ideas posted Dec. 1--along with book suggestions--there are fancy doings for Christmas in nearby Hartford, Connecticut.
On Saturday and Sunday (Dec. 10-11), noon to 4 p.m. each day, tour the former homes of authors Mark Twain and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Each a social critic in a unique way--Twain's Huckleberry Finn and many other writings let society have it between the eyes on its foibles and sins. Stowe made changes with her anti-slavery novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
The Stowe Center and the Twain House & Museum are opening their doors to invite visitors in for an old-fashioned Christmas celebration. There will be holiday garlands, decorated Christmas trees and so much more, introduced by a tour guide who will explain each family's traditions.
You can purchase a joint ticket to tour both of their homes, decorated for the holidays. Most events on these days are free, with an additional charge for house tours. Visitors receive a discount on the combination ticket for both tours. Cost is $20 for adults and $10 for children five through 15 years old.
Want more? There is so much going on:
Members of the Hartford Children's Theatre will portray a mischievous trio of excited Clemens' household daughters (Suzy, Clara and Jean).
Jolly Old St. Nicholas, too, will be on hand to meet children in the Mark Twain House, surrounded by life-size puppets from the Ballard Museum of Puppetry.

How about a horse-drawn carriage ride on the grounds?

High school singers will entertain with early-era chorales, and the Stowe Visitor Center is featuring holiday crafts for participants to try firsthand. Or, shop in both museums' gift shops, with a discount.

The Stowe Center will present two special Christmas exhibits, one--Reforming the Season"--showcasing popular 19th-century greeting cards, etchings, toys and other holiday goodies. The second exhibit is "Rooted in Reform: Portraits of a Family," featuring portraits from the Center's collections, including the Stowe family.
There's free parking and the two museums are next to each other at 77 Forest St. and 351 Farmington Ave., Hartford.
WHAT ELSE? Fun's not over yet.
* The "Steampunk Winter SolsticeTea Party" is a separate event, costing $10, at 2 p.m. Saturday. Call 860-280-3130 for reservations. This is part of a series of events in conjunction with an exhibit, "Steampunk Bizarre: The Unknown." At this event, hosted by Dr. Grymm and Miss Kitty, attendees celebrate the coming of winter with food, music, and a reading by Kady Cross (author of "The Strange Case of Finley Jane" and "The Girl in the Steel Corset"). Come decked out in your Victorian finery, or come as you are and bring a toy for Hartford Hospital, if you are able.
* There's also an event on Dec. 4: 
From 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., the Twain House is decorated for the season and area homes are open for visits. This is a wonderful opportunity to enjoy early architecture and holiday decor in houses built from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. We hear that one house is completely filled with holiday trees!
This is a fundraiser for the museum. For ticket information ($30 each) call 860-280-3130 or visit
So enjoy the season with a literature and holiday combo that's tough to beat!


Thursday, December 1, 2011

Make bookclub a holiday fest

December is frantic, but shouldn’t be too busy to include a meeting. This is a fine time for festivity—and great subject matter.
There are several ways to make your December meeting relatively more fun than Christmas snacks.
Apply imagination, and results will follow.
Here are some ideas I created after only a little brainstorming:
• Bring in favorite (and brief) sections or quotes from a treasured holiday story; take turns reading aloud, with a time limit of about five minutes. (Toasting each reading at its conclusion might add a zesty touch—but those taking their turn late in the process may find reading difficult.)
• Serve foods named in favorite holiday reading—you know, Figgy Pudding, goose, candy canes, wassail, and the like! If there’s one thing members like more than talking about books, it may be food and drink.
 • Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” appears in several incarnations around the area each Christmas. Dickens’ great-great grandson Gerald Dickens will be reading the story in early December at locations in Salem, Mass., and Nashua, N.H. Alternatively, a professional, full-company presentation of this perennial favorite is being presented at the Hanover Dec. 16 through 23 in Worcester—tickets are hot, so hurry!
• What’s your favorite holiday book? Encourage members to bring one along for discussion. It may be Dickens, or Evans’ “The Christmas Box,” or even “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas!” Share, briefly, what made this book significant to them, or—if nothing stands out for a member—a recollection of their own early Christmas (time limits are a must!). This works just as well if members who want to share other holidays: Hanukkah comes on Dec. 20, and Kwanza on Dec. 26. What’s more fun than sharing traditions and stories from beyond the better-known territory of Christmas?
• Select one or two holiday stories that can be read quickly enough for your December gathering. There’s a lot to choose from, most of them blatant ploys to gain the holiday shopper, but these stand out:
— “A Christmas Carol,” There are so many versions of this book that one can easily obtain it. I collect well-illustrated versions, and a favorite is paired beautifully with drawings by Italian children’s book illustrator Roberto Innocenti (Harcourt, 1990).
— “The Nutcracker,” There are many beautiful editions of this classic tale (and ballet) as well. I have one illustrated by Innocenti and another by Maurice Sendak—both are fun to read (Truth now: How many of you have only seen the ballet?). Written by E.T.A. Hoffmann, it’s fun to read, and comes in handy when you take a child to the ballet and said child asks what’s going on. Nowhere else is the “King of the Mice” quite so evil.
—Holiday stories by authors such as John Cheever, Frank O’Connor, Alice Munroe and John Updike, all originally published in The New Yorker magazine, appear in “Christmas at the New Yorker,” a wonderful compilation of mood and hijinks (Random House 2003). Dig in.
• Bring in a quote. If the group has already made another selection for December, supplement the discussion by assigning everyone to bring in a holiday-related quote to share with others. Have a quiz about the source, and reward the top guesser with a book or an extra slice of Buche de Noel.
• For fun, members might like to read aloud, either as an assigned character, or taking turns, from a classic Christmas story or drama. Some good ones: “The Long Christmas Dinner,” by Thornton Wilder or “A Child’s Christmas in Wales,” by Dylan Thomas. If your group is particularly ambitious, they may wish to prepare a series of dramatic readings for the library to showcase during December 2012.
• If members want to keep it light during December, here are reading opportunities:
“A Christmas Blizzard” by Garrison Keiller—fans of A Prairie Home Companion will recognize the schtick, but members may also enjoy encounters with classic family horror stories, as in “The tree will catch fire” and “Your tongue will stick to a frozen pipe.” Mr. Sparrow, the main character, hates Christmas—the world's longest and unhappiest holiday, marked by the sheer horror of `The Little Drummer Boy'.
“How the Grinch Stole Christmas,” Dr. Seuss said it all, and everyone should read (or watch it) annually.
“Christmas at Fontaine’s,” “E.T.” author William Kotzwinkle’s fanciful mystery about a department store amid the chaos of the season. Great fun.
“Holidays on Ice.” David Sedaris has written hilarious stories and essays. “The Santaland Diaries” is a wonderfully imaginative recounting of his time in the trenches as a department store elf.
“An Idiot Girl’s Christmas,” by Lori Notaro, is also contemporary. Like Sedaris, Notaro can be very funny, with dead-on observations of the worst Christmas can bring. These short stories cover the gamut—from bad Christmas gifts to being stuck buying tampons in a busy Christmas line.
“Letters from Father Christmas,” J.R.R. Tolkien wrote these for his children; they’re full of adventure and misadventure.
 “A Christmas Memory,” by Truman Capote, is his beautifully written story—quite autobiographical—of a childhood in Depression-era Alabama. Poignant, rich in detail, it describes the warm friendship between an elderly aunt and a lonely seven-year-old child.  Available on film as well.
 “A Child’s Christmas in Wales” is Dylan Thomas’ poetic, funny tale of a child’s past Christmases, when there were good things to eat, anxious adults, and snow just made for snowball fights. Short, and available online for free ( Very beautiful.
• No time for reading? How about a movie night? Easy to buy or rent, they’re ubiquitous this time of year. Suggestions: “We’re No Angels,” the 1955 classic with Humphrey Bogart, Peter Ustinov, Basil Rathbone, Aldo Ray and Joan Bennett; “A Christmas Carol”: I recommend two—1984’s version with George C. Scott and the 1999 film with Patrick Stewart.
Ann Connery Frantz is a fiction writer and avid reader, and a member of several Lancaster, Mass., book clubs and writers groups. Reach her at Her column runs in The Worcester, Mass., Telegram & Gazette on the last Sunday of each month.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Throw a book club blast!!!

In the early months of planning, especially in clubs that choose topics month to month or quarter to quarter, there’s an opportunity to slate a guest speaker or activity that will stimulate conversation and really make a book memorable.
West Brook Crossing in Shrewsbury, an over-55 community, has an active book club. Members invited all of the residents to meet author John O’Toole of Worcester when he visited on Oct. 4. O’Toole is the author of “Tornado!” (about the disastrous Worcester tornado in 1953) and “Return to Zion,” a novel of the American Revolution. Club members were surprised when 40 guests—“even some of the men”—showed up. Member Janette Comeau made it a point to contact all of the residents, not just club members, and served coffee and refreshments. “Everyone was very, very pleased,” she said. “It was supposed to end at 11, but everyone stayed after to ask questions.” They were still doing so at Noon, she said.
With such a large group, the event was held in their community club house. “He was very pleased,” she said. “He couldn’t believe how many came.” Several members brought O’Toole books they already owned and he signed them.
Grub Street, the writers’ center in Boston, recently posted writer Nichole Bernier’s recommendations for a “book party.” Bernier gave me permission to refer to that information here. “Our book parties are such fun,” she said; “everyone loves to share a glass of wine with the author.”
A Massachusetts resident, Bernier ( becomes a published author in June, when Crown/Random House releases her novel, “The Unfinished Work of Elizabeth D.” But she’s already a professional, having written extensively for Condé Nast’s Traveler magazine and magazines such as Elle, Self and Boston. Her writing is also on Beyond the Margins, a literary blog by 12 writers ( As a reader, she too enjoys book parties: “I’m a geek about connecting people with new writers, and I love talking books,” she said.
Vermont author Chris Bohjalian (“The Night Strangers” is his latest) has already mentioned in this column that authors enjoy feedback from book clubs. Like many popular authors, though, he has only so much time to devote to readers, dividing it between Skype and actual visits. Your club might be better served—and equally interested—by a newer, local or regional author. You may know some already; if not, contact Grub Street ( or your local librarian for recommendations. You can also sometimes find this information on publishers’ websites and at the back of a book. Sisters in Crime, representing New England crime writers has a very active visiting schedule among its members, all mystery writers (

Meanwhile, here are some tips, along with a synopsis of what Bernier has to say about throwing a great book party.
** Teens are avid readers of Young Adult books, and you might be surprised how many children of members and friends of your club will sign up to meet a “real, live author.” E-mail, spread the word, maybe get the library involved. Younger children have their favorites as well. First line up the appropriate authors for age level, she says. And plan to serve refreshments. Let the writers bring books to sell (or order them through a local bookstore and re-sell them on the spot, autographed). “There were about 45 children sitting on my living room floor,” Bernier said. “The kids were thrilled … and they asked smart questions.” The three YA writers at Bernier’s party, by the way, were pleased at total sales of more than 100 books that night.
** To get a very willing author, plan your adult book party around the release of a novel if possible. Guests help celebrate the event, meet the author, and buy a signed copy. But any author, new release or not, is glad to talk about what’s gone into the books they’ve written.
** Invite more folks than you can fit readily, and bring in folding chairs. The more the merrier, she says, and conversation gets far more lively.
** She found independent bookstores very helpful. In one case, Wellesley Books not only provided books but stayed to sell them. “They have gotten us books that are no longer on shelves, and even some titles that aren’t widely available from smaller presses. And they take away the extras for you.” If you can’t do that, try assigning a member to re-sell books you’ve preordered.
** As any good book club member knows, food matters. The best cook in my home club provides the treats for Lancaster’s “Off-Track Bookies” (because the conversation veers widely). What you serve depends on the nature of your members. Appetizers, crisp veggies, sweets are all good. You can keep it simple, and folks will be happy. “Mostly they want to mingle, listen and talk, and would just as soon have their hands free,” Bernier said. She recommends wine and bite-size munchies.
** You can e-mail or mail invitations. Visual reminders do help. Bernier has them made up through an online printer and copies the author’s photo, a book cover image, and a short description of the book or an excerpt.
** To sell books, you’ll need a coffee table, kitchen table or rented oblong table. Think of the author’s comfort in signing books.
** Bernier also recommends a podium or black metal music stand for the author to use in reading aloud. Most guests will read for about 10 minutes, then take questions. Plan on 90 minutes minimum for your event.
** Let your kids greet guests and take coats, or pass snacks. It’s a good chance for them to experience writers as real people, not just photos on book jackets.
** Extend an invitation to any author your members will enjoy, not just someone who has “just published.” Massachusetts is rich with writers, and they like nothing more than talking about what they’ve written.
“The beauty of book parties is that they exist outside of the trendiness and timeliness of shelf life,” Bernier said.
Just ask!

Ann Connery Frantz, journalist, fiction writer and avid reader, participates in several Lancaster area writers’ groups through Thayer Memorial Library. Her short story, “Samaritan,” won the 2010 Dr. Neila Seshachari Award for best fiction published during 2009 in Weber: The Contemporary West. Send questions, comments or club info to

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Look beyond the obvious in book club choices

By now, book club members know that many popular reads contain a guide offering background, author interviews and questions for discussion. They’re always helpful, but do represent a narrowing of the field of books being read. Book groups are creating best-sellers these days, but they’re also courted ambitiously by publishers, marketing agents and authors anxious to sell books. Lazy selection puts too little imagination into the choice of upcoming books, and gives marketers, rather than authors, the success they deserve.
This is not to dissuade you from these choices, but to remind you that options exist.
Remembering that variety is the spice of life, search high and low, choosing several categories as you go outline selections: biography, historical fiction, contemporary nonfiction, a classic, etc., in addition to more standard choices. Some bookstores guard against the popularity contest by trusting a well-read leader to make choices, in conjunction with members’ interests. Others consciously go beyond the best-seller lists (notorious for catering to quick reads and hot authors) to web sites for readers (there are thousands), libraries and trusted sources.
As you choose books, keep in mind the potential for companion books, or field trips to authors’ residences, geographic locations, movies or plays from the books.
Members usually have a book or two to recommend, although here again I find repetition of the most obvious books too often. Ask them to look on their shelves for hidden gems.
Before making the list final, I recommend a day at the library, sitting down with a couple dozen books for ideas, and talking with the staff. Librarians are avid readers, too, and often a source of unexamined possibilities.
On the web, check out these sites—and, again, they are among thousands:
At you’ll find a gathering place for 30,000 book clubs, all sharing what works for them. Unfortunately, the list of top reads, updated weekly, reveals little that’s new. Yet, some ideas are there and others are linked to the site.
Publishers are happy to provide book previews, and have set up informative, enjoyable websites for readers, among them: and For others, just google publishers and readers groups. HarperCollins comes up, along with Harcourt, Bloomsbury and others. It’s even possible to get a free book at some of these locations.
There’s an interesting bird’s eye view of Americans in the recommendations made by Singapore’s National Library Board. Check out and click on the list of recent posts for Fiction Alert: Read Your Way Around America.
Despite its sexy name (and, hey, books are sexy too!), contains voluminous material on books and authors, making it well worth viewing. Also has links to current reviews and articles by or about authors.
The Massachusetts Library’s Associations list of “must-read books” for 2011 can be found at and it includes Massachusetts-linked selections such as Sarah Blake’s “The Postmistress,” set in Cape Cod, and Kathleen Kent’s novel, “The Wolves of Andover.”
Another way to range further is to check, which sets out new books that are being promoted by independent bookstores. It’s always a good idea to help support these smaller stores (though not all are small), and keep the bookstore thing going.
To preview emerging authors, go to, which provides a synopsis and links to reviews of new fiction.
The Midtown Review ( provides author interviews, new book info, links to reader guides and lots of book talk. Some are predictable choices; others surprise.
The American Library Association’s annual list of books most challenged by the public sector is always a good source for books that have something important to say. The current Top Ten Baddies includes Aldous Huxley’s always relevant “Brave New World,” Barbara Ehrenreich’s “Nickel and Dimed,” an important nonfiction portrait of those who serve diners in the U.S., and—surprise—Stephanie Meyers’ “Twilight.” Find a link through
Finally, Mickey Pearlman, author of “What to Read,” online book club maven and an editor who reviews books for the Boston Globe, proffers unconventional choices. She recommends Andrea Levy’s “Small Island” as the best book she’s read all year, and tips the hat to Steve Almond, Kathryn Harrison, “Hester Among the Ruins” by Binnie Kirshenbaum and (especially for book clubs) Sharon Wyse’s “The Box Children.”
Ann Frantz blogs at and is the author of short stories, book reviews and a novel. Contact her at

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Read It and Reap: Cleaning out the bookshelves

Read It and Reap: Cleaning out the bookshelves: Starting with four bags of books removed from my husband’s antiques space–he has no room for them now–I began to cull out the books I no lon...

Cleaning out the bookshelves

Starting with four bags of books removed from my husband’s antiques space–he has no room for them now–I began to cull out the books I no longer need to have. Notice, I didn’t say “want” to have, because I generally want them all. But I’ve watched enough episodes of ‘Hoarders’ to recognize that my connection to books is a little unhealthy, and that I won’t likely live long enough to read them all either.
So I’m thinning out the shelves, selecting some for re-sale elsewhere, a bunch for the library and a bagful for a friend who likes mysteries of a certain kind.
Such paring down will barely dent the collection, but it’s a good start.
I get rid of popular novels and paperbacks first. They have the shelf life of bread, and they sell fast. To the consignment store go old Nora Roberts and Mark Higgins Clark books, two barely touched cookbooks (my family is snickering now), “Islands,” a great beach read by Ann Rivers Siddons, a hardcover of Amy Tan’s “Saving Fish from Drowning,” good–but I can part with it, Sandra Dallas’ “Prayers for Sale,” a touching story about a young mother-to-be and the old woman who befriends her in a mountain town during the Depression. The “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” is going too… I have no real prospects of giving that to a friend in the near future.
And there are a handful of books I hoped to read, but don’t believe I’ll get to in the press of more compelling possibilities. My taste changes every few years, and these haven’t made it. But someone else will enjoy them, I’m sure.
To the library go a couple of dozen thrillers my husband whips through like dessert–Connellys, Ludlums, Cussler, King, Lecarre, Baldacci, Clancy and the like. He pulled back a James Lee Burke, whose writing he loves. He doesn’t part with anything by Ivan Doig, either. Doig’s, I agree, is a unique voice spanning genres.
The library also gets cookbooks, master works I bought but couldn’t really enjoy because of style or content, top-sellers I read but won’t keep, like “The Lovely Bones” and “Life of Pi.” Nothing wrong with them–just won’t read them again.
Sorting through books forces one to prioritize, bowing to the real needs and preferences when there are simply too many books to house. I have a dozen bookcases of varying shapes, each packed to the edges with classics, signed editions, favorite authors, best-sellers, histories, biographies and special interest nonfiction.
I would dearly love to trade them for new ones.
But sadly, there isn’t enough time to organize something like that and, even sadder, books are easy to get and lose monetary value as soon as they leave the store.
I love books. I disdain mass-produced cheap paperbacks in favor of the larger, more attractive editions so many authors are published in today. Hard covers don’t have much appeal unless they’re truly beautiful, or signed, and I keep only the ones I will read, re-read or share.
Of course, this may sound very austere. Realize that I have more books than a small bookshop. If I had my druthers, that is also what I would be doing, offering free wi-fi, coffee, tea and tidbits, and lots of books. And if we ever buy a place with retail space for my hubby’s antiques and my books, that is what I will do, setting up my own computer on a nearby desk to keep at my own fiction.
And I would stop writing freelance articles about things that don’t really interest me, and write only about the things I love. Like my T.C. Boyle book review (“When the Killing’s Done”) just published on the Head Butler blog.
Bookshelves hold books, but more than that, they hold lives, inspiration, and dreams. Not for me the Nook, or anything like it. They’re good tools, but not the stuff of imagination.
I hope for a long, healthy life, so that I can enjoy them all, and write to my heart’s content.

Sunday, July 31, 2011

Deep discussion and good food... invite an author to your book club meeting

Book groups are a boon to writers—so they’ll visit when they can.
They say book clubs give important feedback and inspiration. Just as importantly, they like talking about books with readers, and book groups provide a vital critical eye. I contacted a few writers, and here’s what they had to say:
Author Ann Packer, (“The Dive from Clausen’s Pier,” “Songs Without Words,” “Swim Back to Me”) says a great book group experience springs from the interaction. “What works best will vary from author to author and group to group. I’ve had great experiences when the group has assembled on its own first, so the members can have their customary book group discussion without the pressure of having the author there. They can also use this time to think about what questions they want to ask to get the ball rolling … it can be like an interview or a conversation, whatever the chemistry dictates.”
Concord resident Kate Flora, whose non-fiction, “Finding Amy” was nominated for the prestigious Edgar Award, has also written two series, based on characters Thea Kozak and Joe Burgess—the next Burgess, “Redemption,” comes out in February. She loves book groups. “Unlike library or bookstore talks, I get a chance for a deeper discussion of the book. It gives me insights I might not otherwise get into what readers are seeing and wondering about. Sometimes, they’re surprising.” Request a visit at When inviting writers, be supportive of them, she reminds: “It is critical, since these events do take time, that the club members commit to buying the book. Selling books, after all, is what keeps us alive and readers often don't understand that. Readers sometimes don't understand that a writer is not flattered by a group that proudly announces they've bought three copies of the book and passed them around.”

Hallie Ephron, a Boston Globe columnist and author of several suspense novels (“Never Tell a Lie,” “Come and Find Me”), says “I know I’m speaking for most authors when I say we would love to hear from you. All they have to do is email me.” ( “I confess I love talking with book groups in person. There’s usually wonderful food!” When the group isn’t close enough to her Massachusetts home, she has used both Skype and Gmail video conferencing. They work great, she says. “I’d love to do more. It’s one of the best ways to meet readers. With fewer and fewer independent bookstores to host events, and publishers being very careful about how they spend their promotional dollars, speaking with book groups is a no-brainer. It's a win win win.”
Romantic comedy writer M. Kate Quinn (“Summer Iris,” “Moonlight & Violet”) can be reached at “To me, it’s like giving back to those who’ve taken the time to buy and read my work. I love their questions about the book, their interest, their hopes for future works. I get great ideas ...” She’s offering a book group visit through a random drawing among groups that submit a request on her website ( and she’ll bring an Italian dinner along as a treat. These people have way too much fun!
Quinn suggests that club members prepare by, of course, reading the book. Also, “it would be great if they had a little preliminary discussion as to what they’d like to hear from me. For example, do they want to know if the story stops there, or if there’s a planned sequel, do they agree with the protagonist’s decisions, the antagonist’s? What’s helpful to me is learning how the reader relates. In each circumstance where I’ve visited… I took away valuable insight as to why my stories resonate with people. That’s gold!”
Author Chris Bohjalian allows a free 20-minute conference via speakerphone. Or, groups can read interviews about his 13 books at His books include “Midwives,” “Before You Know Kindness” and the upcoming “The Night Strangers.” “I speak to book clubs all the time via speakerphone or Skype,” he said. “I average three or four … a week, and have been doing this since 2000.” He limits personal visits. “I only visit book groups in person when the group is the highest bidder in a non-profit fundraising auction.” (Close to his Burlington, Vt. Home, the opening bid is $500.)
Bohjalian relishes book group interaction. “It isn’t work to talk about books,” he said. “It wasn’t all that long ago that my books sold briskly, but only among people related to me by blood. I try never to lose sight of that reality. Consequently, I will communicate with readers in virtually any fashion they like.”

The popularity and variety of book groups proves serious reading is not dying out, he says. He once attended a book group made up of judges debating the merits of a trial involving his lead character in “Midwives.” (See
He shares one tip for the groups: “Make sure the technology—speakerphone or Skype—is working ahead of time. Few book groups do. The result is a lot of wasted time when we could be discussing books.”

So don’t miss out on a great opportunity to add dimension to your reads in this way.