How to pick the next book for your book club

Narrowing down book choices in the age of information overload is daunting. How do you wade through the raft of existing books plus the new releases? It’s tough to know how to pick the elusive “good read”. You know what I’m talking about, the book that makes everyone smile or glow when it’s mentioned. The book you recommend to friends and family whenever you can. The gem! You don’t want to pick the book that doesn’t spark discussion or the novel that readers struggle to finish.

How to pick the next book club book

You may not think you know what your book club likes to read, but you do. You really do. Whether you like pot boilers or classic literature, just know your audience. If you don’t like murder mysteries and the majority does, you may want to search out a new book club. But say you’re in a group of like-minded readers and you all usually agree with the choices in Oprah’s book club—and then the worst happens—she closes her club. Or then she starts up her club again, but you moved on to a different book club and this group of readers likes historical fiction. How do you find new books tailored to your group? Really, the question is, how do you find books that are worth the read?

Look back over the books that were nearly universally beloved. Did they have a common thread? Does your book club seem to gravitate toward particular genres like true crime or young adult books turned into movies?

Now, think back to the books that bombed. The Lincoln biography seemed like a good idea, because who doesn’t want to know more about the man behind The Emancipation Proclamation? But that book resulted in the lowest book club attendance on record. Was it the 720 pages? The deep subject matter? Or simply that it wasn’t The Lovely Bones or Bel Canto? And then there was Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates—an important book that everyone should have liked—but there wasn’t a single redeeming character in the book. That novel left every member intensely scrutinizing subsequent book picks (i.e. how can we avoid reading an incredibly depressing book where we hate the characters as much as they hate themselves).

Vet good candidates by relying on curators. There are several excellent resources:

  • Goodreads is a very popular starting point. You can see ratings and reviews easily. And if you follow your book club members you can check out their recommendations and comments. The site also has a nice feature of suggesting your next read based on your likes.
  • Pinterest isn’t just for recipes and (let’s be honest) finding a list of DIY projects you may never start. Search “book lists” and pin for later. For some reason, I don’t go back to look at my book pins when I’m looking for a new recommendation. Maybe it’s because I pin the “50 books you need to read right now” and I get overwhelmed because it’s next to the “73 ways to get a better bod” and “42 ways to organize your pantry” pins.
  • Book award lists are another rich resource. Consider both nominees and winners. And, if you’re wary of choosing an untested book, choose an author on the list with previous award winners under their belt. You can read reviews about their earlier work. I like these lists:
  • Crowd source. Go to your favorite social media source and ask, “What are you reading and what should I read?” You’ll be amazed at the suggestions. Write them all down and then look up a review online.
  • Read the reviews. Peruse Huffington Post Books or the New York Times Sunday Book Review for recommendations.
  • Don’t underestimate staff reading lists at libraries and local book stores. Not only are the suggestions usually stellar, especially if you want a regional flavor, but you can typically chat up the recommender on the spot.
  • And then there’s Amazon. I put Amazon last on the list because it’s such a go-to source and we should branch out. You know I’m right. But if you’re short on time, everything is all in one place, the Editor Picks are worth consulting, and (trust me) it’s easy to buy.

 

What do you think? Did I miss a good source? Let me know your suggestions for finding good book club reads. You can also follow me on Pinterest. I have a book board called Bookish.

These books are next on my list—Crazy Rich Asians by Kevin Kwan and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. How about you? What are you reading and what should my book club read next?

Book Review: The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

If you’re a lifelong reader like me, chances are you dream of owning a bookstore. Since I was seventeen, I’ve imagined running a boutique bookstore. I would name my store Bookish. Situated on a picturesque street in Friday Harbor on San Juan Island, Washington, my bookstore would have quirky cashiers, cozy sitting areas with ferns, and, of course, author events. Never mind that Friday Harbor already has a lovely independent bookstore or that Bookish is the name of a bookseller in Berkeley and a .com book site. And forget that independent booksellers struggle in the e-commerce age. Owning a bookstore was (and still is) my aspiration.

The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry

Reading Gabrielle Zevin’s The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry rushed me back to my bookseller dream. A passionate love letter to books and indie bookstores, the novel centers on A.J. Fikry, a bitter bookseller in an isolated island town. As a recent widower, Fikry copes with books and cheap merlot until (and I won’t spoil a significant plot twist) unexpected joy enters his life.

Is this a good book club pick? I give a qualified but resounding yes. AJF has universal themes of love, hope, and loss that I think will resonate with most readers. It’s an engaging story and every element is about books—the power of stories and prose, the feel of a paperback, the smell of a stack of books, and authors with the ability to create entire new worlds. My only reservation for an absolute recommendation is based on some reviewers labeling the novel as chick lit. While I can see why—even the morose parts bounce along on optimism and the book never goes too deep—I think the plot twists and approachable writing style make this an everyone-lit book. More serious book clubs accustomed to reading and dissecting literature might consider the novel to be too light.

But for many readers, the book will likely promise a rich discussion on the likeable characters and the books (don’t forget the short story collections) mentioned. Not only do each of the thirteen chapters begin with a book synopsis, but Zevin name drops countless books and authors throughout the pages. If you didn’t already have a to-be-read list, the books mentioned in AJF are a fantastic place to start.

At 258 pages, it’s reasonable to expect most readers (even busy parents) will be able to finish the book in a four- to six-week window. I finished the book quickly—it’s a page turner and the ending satisfied me. From start to finish, AJF is a good read. If I had to criticize any element, it would be a lack of any mention of my favorite author, Margaret Atwood. Just so we’re clear, if I ever write a novel, I’ll find a way to reference The Handmaid’s Tale or The Edible Woman in some way.

One of my favorite passages involves a discussion on the timing of books. A.J. argues that some books need to be read at the right time to strike a chord. “Sometimes books don’t find us until the right time.” I agree. A Wrinkle in Time is a great example. I read that book in the third grade and it never stuck with me. Then just this week, I started reading the book to my first grader. She fell asleep in chapter two and I kept on reading. I finished the book in one big gulp and now I can’t wait to discover more Madeleine L’Engle books that I should have enjoyed more as a child.

I recommend this book as a good break between heavy or dark subjects. Did your book club just finish a book on WWII or slavery? Perfect! Read AJF next and it will cleanse your palette for the next emotional roller coaster book. To make your book club evening a theme night, consider a garden party theme (like A.J.’s doomed author event for The Late Bloomer) and ask everyone to share their top three books. If you like this novel, you might also want to read Lorna Landvik’s 2003 novel, Angry Housewives Eating Bon Bons, another plot centered on a love of books.

Would it make a good gift?

Absolutely. I think teens to adults will enjoy the book. In fact, round out your gift with books A.J. Fikry recommends, like Bel Canto or The Book Thief.

Will I recommend it to my husband?

No. He gravitates toward non-fiction and history—Seabiscuit and Devil in the White City are more his speed. While I think many men would enjoy the novel, I imagine more women will be fans of AJF.

Book club questions:

1. What do you think of the author’s skill with character development? Were the characters layered or did some appear to be sketches? If so, which ones?

2. If A.J. Fikry were a writer, and not an opinionated bookseller, what genre would he have attempted? Do you think he would have succeeded as an author?

3. A.J. Fikry summarizes thirteen books. Do you think these picks are his top books, or are they perhaps more significant to the story arc?

4. What are your three favorite books of all time, and why?

5. What was the first book you remember reading that hooked you?

6. In the book, Moby Dick is skewered for being the required high school book that many students loathed. Which required or assigned book would have soured you on reading if it had been your first book?

 

Thank you for reading my review and please let me know what you think of The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

 

Five reasons why I’m killing my blog

If blog neglect were a crime, I’d be guilty. I confess it’s been almost a year since my last post. In three years I published over 100 posts and today I trashed many of them.

I'm (mostly) killing my blog

I’m killing my blog—most of it. Here’s why:

  1. Posts were all over the place. When I started blogging four years ago, I didn’t know what I was doing and, worse, I didn’t have a goal in mind. An avid cook, a new parent, a bookworm, and a crafter, I blogged about any subject I knew well. Within weeks, I was regularly posting recipes, sharing baby pictures, and writing about crafts and baby products. My blog didn’t have a clear focus. Eventually, I found a niche as a food blogger. Then I’d ruin my flow by inserting a DIY tutu-dress tutorial post between recipes. It was a mish-mash, like the junk drawer in my kitchen.
  2. The photography sucked. In the beginning, I didn’t understand the importance of illustrating posts and recipes with images. I learned quickly that adding a photo would boost clicks and comments. Plus, in the early days I discovered the magic of easy Wordless Wednesday photo posts. But not all photographs are created equal and my pictures varied between mediocre to dreadful. A picture doesn’t say 1,000 words if it’s overexposed or blurry. It didn’t take me long to realize that words are my forte, not pictures.
  3. Blogging is hard. Keeping a blog updated, focused, and relevant to followers is a major commitment. Hats off to the bloggers who can maintain a steady stream of topics, find time to post, write compelling content, take decent pictures, watermark the pictures, troubleshoot any glitches, and promote the content on social channels. If you add contests, giveaways, and chats on top of that you’re talking serious effort and a significant chunk of time.
  4. Food blogging is harder. So take a typical blog and then add in time, talent, and energy to chef up original recipes. I discovered early on that food blogging isn’t merely recipe sharing—it’s critically important to give proper credit to recipes adapted from or inspired by other published authors. Content scraping in general isn’t cool, and that’s true in food blogging too. The Food Blog Alliance summarizes the landmines of recipe attribution well. So, at a basic level, keeping a food blog on the up and up is challenging. Then you have to invent, test, cook, photograph, and write up your creations. Great food bloggers take time to photograph the ingredients, each major step, and the finished dish—extra points for adding flair, like an artfully arranged napkin and a distressed table as a backdrop. Don’t forget to add time for cleanup and photo editing. So many food bloggers make it look easy. I think it’s hard as hell. Be sure to give your favorite food bloggers high praise for repeatedly serving up killer content.
  5. My blog clashed with my family. When I blog, there’s literally a very long laundry list of things I’m not getting done. For starters, there’s the dirty laundry. And, the house doesn’t clean itself. But most importantly, my favorite people were getting a raw deal. I felt personal pride in publishing a cool post, but it meant nothing when I realized I was missing moments I could have been cherishing. Occasionally sitting on a couch and blogging while my kids play—fine. Regularly paying more attention to my laptop than my daughters was not acceptable. I calculated that the time it would take me to take my mediocre blog to a much better level would be time I wouldn’t get back with my family.

There you have it—five excellent reasons to kill my blog. Except, I’m not ready to pull the plug. Over the last year, it occurred to me that I could delete the pathetic posts, refocus the content, and keep Amy On The Prairie going. Essentially, I’m giving my blog makeover. For all the reasons why my blog sucked, I can think of four reasons why I need to keep the blog going.

  1. It’s mine. Blogging is my time to myself. Of all the demands on my time as a wife, mother, copywriter, daughter, friend, and even Sunday school teacher, blogging is just for me.
  2. I owe my blog a lot. Blogging helped me build a writing portfolio that ultimately helped me prove my ability to write for a living as a copywriter. And, my fledgling blog taught me how to find my voice and the importance of building a blogging network. The bloggers I met on Twitter and in real life at blogger events turned into friends and a richer professional network.
  3. There’s still more to learn. From headline writing, to social media promotion and engagement, to learning WordPress and SEO, blogging was an excellent practical teacher. I write benefit-driven copy every day for work, but unfettered writing is a rich source of creativity and sometimes loosens up any writer’s block when the muse forgets to visit my keyboard.
  4. I finally have a clear focus. Over the past year of not blogging at all, I had time to think about my strengths and a good reason to keep the blog alive. It occurred to me that my passions of reading books and cookbooks (yes, I read cookbooks and sometimes I cook from them) will be a tidy, purposeful niche for my blog. Soon, you should see posts from me on how to pick books for your book club, must-have cookbooks, and so on.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you’ll be hearing more from me—of cooks and books—very soon.

 

Pecan Sage Corn Bread Stuffing

I grew up eating Stove Top stuffing for Thanksgiving and Christmas. Now, there is absolutely nothing wrong with Stove Top. It is easy to prepare and very tasty. But 10 years ago I wanted to try a new stuffing recipe. I found a corn bread stuffing recipe attached to a Cornish game hen recipe in the Better Homes and Gardens New Cook Book (page 411 of the 1996 version).  Whoa. Seriously, I crave this corn bread stuffing more than turkey, more than mashed potatoes. This dish is my favorite part of the meal. I make my version of this recipe every holiday since. It’s a family favorite.

Pecan Sage Corn Bread Stuffing

Pecan Sage Corn Bread Stuffing

The original recipe calls for chopped sweet green pepper and dried currants or raisins. I omit those, but you can certainly add them back in. I also (roughly) triple the ingredients. I love this recipe because it’s easy to make a day or two before the big meal and the flavors are heavenly paired with roasted turkey. I mean, really—toasted pecans, green onions, and fresh sage—unbelievably packed with flavor. The picture shows the stuffing before baking. It browns up a little more after baking. Here is my adapted version.

Pecan Sage Corn Bread Stuffing

Ingredients

-          About 6-8 cups crumbled corn bread. (I use three boxes of the classic Jiffy corn bread mix. If you use that mix, make sure you have a cup of milk and 3 eggs on hand. You can use any corn bread mix, but I like the Jiffy mix because it’s fairly dry and easy to crumble for the stuffing.)

-          1 ½ cups chopped, toasted pecans (I toast the pecans on a baking sheet in a 375° oven for 10 minutes)

-          ½ cup fresh chopped sage (you have to use fresh, you really do)

-          1 cup sliced green onions (roughly 2 bunches of green onions)

-          ¼ cup melted butter

-          1 can (14.5 ounces of chicken broth) [I use Swanson’s low sodium version]

Directions

-          Bake corn bread according to package directions. Set aside and cool. (For 3 Jiffy mixes, I divide the corn bread batter and pour 2/3 into a 9×13 pan and the remaining batter in a 9×9 pan. Spray both baking dishes with cooking spray. I use PAM.)

-          Toast the pecans on a baking sheet in a 375° oven for 10 minutes. Set aside and cool.

-          Slice the green onions and snip the fresh sage.

-          In a large bowl, combine the corn bread, pecans, onions, and sage. Pour the chicken broth over the dry ingredients.

-          Melt the butter and drizzle the butter over the mixture. Mix well and spoon into a 9×13 baking dish coated with cooking spray. Cover the dish and chill overnight. You can make the dish at least a day in advance.

-          When you’re ready to bake, preheat the oven to 375°. Bake covered for about 35 minutes.

I serve the stuffing with a traditional turkey dinner. But I’ll be honest with you. I would eat this as a main dish any day of the week. I am hosting Thanksgiving this year and here is our menu for 5 adults and two children:

-          Turkey seasoned with fresh rosemary under the skin, and rubbed with olive oil, salt and pepper. I use my mom’s trick of stuffing the cavity with sliced onions, lemons, and oranges.

-          Mashed potatoes

-          Dinner rolls (I make Rhodes white dinner rolls)

-          Cranberry sauce (the jellied, sugary kind where you can still see the can indentations)

-          Sweet potatoes (this year I’m trying the whipped bourbon bacon sweet potatoes from How Sweet It Is. So excited!!!)

-          Pumpkin pie (I use Pillsbury refrigerated pie crust and Moosewood Cookbook’s no-fault pumpkin pie recipe on pg 203)

-          Green bean casserole with the crunchy fried onions on top

-          Relish tray (pickles, olives, red and green pepper slices, and carrot sticks)

 

What’s on your holiday menu? Enjoy your time with friends and family. Happy Thanksgiving!

Hard Cider White Chicken Chili

Do you ever start cooking, but you don’t really have a plan? I knew I wanted to make chili, but not much beyond that. I started with onions and chicken simmering in olive oil, added some Angry Orchard hard cider and a jar of salsa verde, threw in pinto beans and let it simmer. I’m really happy with how it turned out. The sweetness of the cider pairs nicely with the tangy salsa. This recipe is a winner. We served it with loaded baked potatoes, and more hard cider, of course.

chiliIngredients

3 boneless, skinless chicken breasts (chopped roughly in 2-3 inch pieces)

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

1/2 cup hard cider

2 cans of pinto beans (total of 16 ounces)

1 jar of salsa verde (8-10 ounces)

2 cups of water

Toppings: shredded cheddar cheese and sour cream for a garnish

Directions:

In a large saucepan heat olive oil. Add onion and chicken. Simmer about 3 minutes and add hard cider. Simmer another 5 minutes until chicken cooked thoroughly. Add remaining ingredients and cook on medium heat for 15 minutes.

Top chili with shredded cheese and sour cream. We served it with baked potatoes loaded with more cheese, sour cream, and bacon.

I will make this again, and next time I’m tempted to put bacon in the soup. Yes, that will take this great chili over the top.

Simple Stacked Sugar Cookies for Valentine’s Day

cookiesv12

I secretly have a thing for Valentine’s Day. Maybe it’s because my husband proposed to me on Valentine’s Day. In fact, that’s probably it. It could explain why I love baking heart-shaped desserts.

Today was definitely a baking day. I made cheeseburger pie, a spinach quiche, and these Valentine’s Day sugar cookies. Digging around in the pantry, I found a Betty Crocker sugar cookie mix and decided to whip up some cookies for my daughters. These are really easy because they look pretty and you don’t have to mess with icing.

To make these, you’ll need a sugar cookie mix, 1/3 cup of butter, 1 tablespoon of flour, 1 egg, red food coloring, and heart-shaped fondant or cookie cutters.

Valentine's Day Stacked Sugar Cookie Tutorial

Valentine’s Day Stacked Sugar Cookie Tutorial

Follow the sugar cookie mix directions. (Or, if you want to be healthier, you can try this whole wheat flour sugar cookie recipe.) Split the dough in half and place in two separate bowls. In one bowl, add several drops of red food coloring (use your best judgement–I lost count of the number of drops) and mix well. Roll out both colors of sugar cookie dough out on a pastry mat or clean surface. (Don’t forget to lightly coat the rolling pin with flour.) Use the cookie cutters to cut several different sizes of hearts and stack them however you please. I tried several variations. My favorite are the plain sugar cookies with a medium-size red heart stacked on top. Bake according to the directions, but you might want to add 1 more minute because the stacked cookies are a little thicker.

cookiesv13

I love the way these look. We didn’t miss the icing or sprinkles at all. You know, there’s something special about a simple sugar cookie.

cookiesv8

Happy (early) Valentine’s Day!

~Amy

Chocolate Raspberry Tart

I grew up in Colorado (among other places) and I collected several cookbooks from the Junior League of Denver. My favorite cookbook is Colorado Collage. I believe it’s still in print, so look for it online and snap up a copy. You can find this recipe, Chocolate Raspberry Tart, in the cookbook on page 350, but I tweak it a bit. I use the crust recipe from my other favorite dessert recipe, Almond Tart, on page 348. I don’t like to roll out and chill pie crust, so this crust recipe is actually fairly simple.

I love this dessert because it is delicious, not overly complicated, and perfect for a special occasion. But buckle up, because you’re going to need 2 sticks of butter and a special tart pan with a removable bottom. It’s worth it!

Chocolate Raspberry Tart

(inspired by Colorado Collage cookbook)

Crust:

1 cup flour

1 T sugar

pinch of salt

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

1 T vanilla

1 1/2 tsp water

Filling:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter

4 ounces semisweet chocolate

3/4 cup sugar

2 eggs

1 egg yolk

1/2 tsp vanilla

1/4 cup half and half

Topping:

1/2 cup seedless raspberry jam

1 cup fresh raspberries, rinse and pat dry

Directions:

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. You’ll need a 9-inch tart pan with a removable bottom. Lightly grease the pan. (I use cooking spray). In a food processor, combine flour, sugar, salt, and butter. Mix or pulse until it is crumbly. In a separate small bowl, combine the vanilla and water. Slowly add this vanilla mixture to the flour mixture while the processor is running. Process the dough until it forms a ball.  [Note: you can make the crust without a food processor, but I find it takes significantly longer.]

Press the dough into the tart pan. Pat the crust until it covers the bottom of the pan and up the sides. Bake for 10 minutes. It will be light brown. Cool the crust on a rack and reduce the oven temperature to 350 degrees.

In a medium saucepan, melt the butter and chocolate over low heat. When melted, add the sugar, eggs, yolk, and vanilla. Stir until smooth, remove from heat, and stir in the half and half. Pour into the prepared crust. Bake for 25 minutes until set. Cool on a rack.

In a small saucepan, melt the raspberry jam over low heat. Carefully spoon half the melted jam over the tart. Decorate with the fresh raspberries and drizzle the remaining jam over the fruit.

You can serve the tart at room temperature or chilled.

Let me know if you make it. It really is divine, but with two sticks of butter, chocolate, and fresh raspberries it has to be amazing. Enjoy!