Fiction Worth a Listen for Book Clubs

Of course, an audiobook is a “real book.” Don’t let anyone try to shame you with their belief that listening to a book isn’t “real” reading.

I’ve been reading books with my ears since the 1980s. First, I listened to them on cassettes, then CDs, before joining the Audible digital subscription service circa 2000. I always listen to a sample of the narration before downloading and have been known to give an audiobook a try if it’s read by a narrator I love—even if it’s out of my favorite genres.

Give both fiction and nonfiction a try—you might have a different preference for your ears than for your eyes. Free audiobooks are available through most public libraries.

“Cheating” with an abridged audiobook

Sometimes your book club decides on something not quite to your taste; sometimes you don’t have time to read the whole book but still want to attend your book club meeting.

When faced with either of these socially-awkward situations, look for InstaRead Summaries. Some are pure summary in less than half an hour, others are chapter-by-chapter summaries. I’ve never seen one run over an hour.

Circe by Madeline Miller, narrated by Perdita Weeks

US cover of Circe, by Madeline Miller

The audiobook “Circe” is pure perfection in story and narration.

Of the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve listened to, one stands alone: Circe, written by Madeline Miller and narrated by Perdita Weeks.

Since this is a post on audiobooks, I’ll start by raving about this narrator. It’s one thing to accurately read the text and pronounce the words (not all narrators accomplish this low bar), but Perdita Weeks breathes life into every syllable. Honestly, I could listen to her draw breath.

It’s the perfect book club book no matter how you read it. Here’s an online readers guide.

From the Publisher: In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Ayiti, written and narrated by Roxane Gay

Audiobook Ayiti

Not all authors are good narrators, but Roxane Gay is both. This audiobook can be read in about three hours; the perfect follow-up to a saga on your book club’s lineup.

You may be familiar with her work as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, or her essay collection, Bad Feminist.

Ayiti is her first book. It packs emotional wallop after wallop as Gay explores the Haitian diaspora experience in a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

The stories alone will make your club’s facilitator’s job easy, even without a reading guide. They touch on sexism, racism, capitalism, American values, and so much more.

From the Publisher: In Ayiti, a married couple seeking boat passage to America prepares to leave their homeland. A young woman procures a voodoo love potion to ensnare a childhood classmate. A mother takes a foreign soldier into her home as a boarder, and into her bed. And a woman conceives a daughter on the bank of a river while fleeing a horrific massacre, a daughter who later moves to America for a new life but is perpetually haunted by the mysterious scent of blood.

The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure, narrated by Mark Bramhall

Audiobook, The Paris Architect: A NovelThis year I read a good deal of historical fiction since I’m writing a novel set in 1943 and 1967.

The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure, as narrated by Mark Bramhall, helped me well exceed my daily 10,000 step goal. The narrator personified each character beautifully, and with the polyglot’s command of pronunciation and inflection. This is where an audiobook outshines its printed counterpart.

Summary: A gentile in Nazi-occupied Paris, architect Lucien Bernard detests Jews. But he can’t resist the challenge of designing concealed hiding spaces—behind a painting, within a column, or inside a drainpipe—that are invisible to the average eye.

Of course, inevitably, one of his clever hiding spaces fails horribly and the immense suffering of Jews becomes incredibly personal.

Here’s an online Reading Guide for your book club.


Be sure to check out Charlotte Lit’s Tips for Building A Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club available on this page

Recommended Memoirs for Book Clubs

There are times I’m suddenly aware that I’m not as well-rounded a reader as I’d wish. The curation of this list was one of those moments. I read the way I do most things––intuitively and deeply. I’m a poet, so my memoir preferences lean toward beautiful writing as much as to dramatic storytelling. I’m a student and teacher of depth psychology, so a memoirist’s ability to reflect upon the inner journey is just as important to me as funny anecdotes about crazy relatives. I’m a feminist, which leads me more often, though not exclusively, to women’s stories.

As a writer, I also adore craft books, which is why I’ve included one by Mary Karr. I promise, it’s as much fun as her first memoir. And, if you aren’t yet a writer, by the time you finish The Art of Memoir, you’ll be ready to pick up a pen.

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash

Not your typical celebrity tell-all. Sure, there’s enough industry-insider intrigue to keep fans of Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash turning pages. But Rosanne is a sage, often lyrical, writer. Hers is a story of the ties that bind her to her family, her music, and her soul. 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Didion became famous for pioneering a form of writing that seamlessly marries journalism and personal essay. She is a keen observer of the tense relationship between the outer world and inner experience, nowhere more so than in this acclaimed account of the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death. 

Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

Delightful, and delightfully short, this genre-defying collection of personal reflections marries the best things about poetry (intensity of compression) and memoir (radical, sometimes raw truth-telling). Plus, Fennelly’s observations about marriage, children, and the writing life can be uproariously funny. Fennelly currently serves as Poet Laureate of Mississippi.

There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

I fell in love with Casey Gerald when I heard him speak at last year’s library fundraiser, Verse & Vino. His wasn’t the only book I bought that night (no surprise there), but it’s the one that keeps me thinking. He writes in breathtaking detail and with lots of good humor about his dramatic and impoverished upbringing, the searing pain of surviving adolescence as both black and gay, and becoming a man within a duplicitous society that both promotes and limits him in his journey into adulthood.  

I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl

This memoir is a beautifully written exercise in the art of discovery. Though it’s not a craft book, Hampl consciously demonstrates the means through which she reflects on her inner and outer life experience, explores the misty landscapes of memory, and explains what most memoirists are only vaguely aware of—the reason for writing one at all.

Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo

Harjo was named U.S. Poet Laureate this past June. Yes, this memoir is written in prose—gorgeous, lyrical, mythic prose. After you’ve read it, you’ll likely want to read her poems, too. And, afterwards, you’ll want to find recordings of her music. And, after that, you’ll want to meet her, which you can do next April when Harjo visits Charlotte to headline CPCC’s Sensoria festival and (lucky us!) teach at Charlotte Lit.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C. G. Jung

As I admitted in the introduction, I’m a Jungian, so there’s no way I could leave this classic off my list. Yes, it’s one of the more difficult books (and perhaps the strangest) on the list. But readers will be rewarded for their efforts with fresh understanding about the roots of modern psychology and an experience of its founder’s rich imagination. MDR, as it’s known, is a classic—deservedly so.

The Liar’s Club and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Yes, these are two separate books. I’m fighting against the limits of the list. Besides, my hunch is that avid readers have already come across Karr’s famous first memoir, The Liar’s Club. If not, read it before any of these others. Then sometime in the middle of your reading year, take up Karr’s equally compelling craft book, The Art of Memoir. Even if it doesn’t make you want to take up your pen, it will make you a better reader.

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd

Kidd is known for her best-selling novel, The Secret Life of Bees. This is an altogether different kind of book—part memoir, part study of feminist spirituality. Kidd weaves the two threads seamlessly, not only finding her voice in the process but helping readers do the same. As she writes, “The hardest thing about writing is telling the truth. Maybe it’s the hardest thing about being a woman, too.”

Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith

This memoir is also written by a U.S. Poet Laureate. Smith served in the role from 2017-2019. By now, you might be wondering about the relationship between poetry and memoir. All I can say is that the best memoir writers have a style of consciousness, a tendency for and pattern of reflection, that is poetic in essence. And no one does this more lyrically or powerfully than Smith.

Since many book groups meet every month of the year, I’m throwing in a few more titles to choose from. These books are no kind of runners up; I just ran out of room!

  • Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
  • Bluets by Maggie Nelson (another slender micro-memoir volume)
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Tips for a Better Book Club

Book Club Recommendations: An Eclectic Mix

When I can’t decide what I want to eat, one of my favorite meals is what, in my family, is called a “Continental Plate.” The reason for this designation is lost to me, but it conjures up a degree of sophistication and worldliness. In reality, it’s just a fancy term for bit of this and that in the face of indecision. A smattering of spiced nuts, a bit of good cheese, some grapes. Or another day, hummus and carrots along with salty sesame crackers. A effortless, varied assemblage that is nevertheless satisfying.

Lately, I’ve been craving the same in my reading queue. While I’m still sucker for a page-turning novel or a stellar collection of poetry, among that mix there are also oddball, hard to classify works that have made their way to the stack on my bedside table. They might be listed as micro-memoir, essay, flash fiction, or maybe they defy classification. Either way, I’ve appreciated their creativity and variety.  Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis Can't and Won't

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk 

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly

Image result for heating and cooling book cover

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

Sing to It by Amy Hempel

Sing to It

Check out Charlotte Lit’s recommendations for Building a Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club

Genre Mystery Recommendations for Book Clubs

If your book club reads exclusively mysteries, or if your book club wants to try a year of mysteries, it can be a good idea to mix up the types of books you read. But how to categorize?

Within the larger category of crime are sub-categories: thriller, suspense, and mystery…and within mystery are more than a dozen ways to slice and dice (excuse the pun) the offerings. Here’s one way to think about it.

Classic Noir: The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

There are so many great choices from the golden age of hardboiled detective—Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, SOMEONE ELSE—that it’s hard to go wrong with any of them, but for my money it’s Chandler, and this is my favorite of his not-extensive library. Bonus: The Annotated Big Sleep.

Private Detective: Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

There are many great PIs, including Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. But the ones you have to read are Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. Bonus: Robert Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.

Traditional: Southern Fried, Cathy Pickens

Traditional is often conflated with cozy, but I’m here to argue that Agatha Christie is traditional; cats and cookies is cozy. (I won’t be recommending any cozies.) Pickens—who teaches at Charlotte Lit—won the prestigious St. Martin’s Press Best Traditional Mystery with her first Avery Andrews novel.

Forensic: Death du Jour or A Conspiracy of Bones, Kathy Reichs

Two choices here out of 20 Temperance Brennan novels for Charlotte’s Reichs: a classic and her latest (out in early 2020). If you like the television series Bones, you’ll love the books.

Literary: Case Histories, Kate Atkinson

There’s something compelling about the enigmatic Jackson Brodie and his mysteries, in which seemingly unconnected events all come together in the end. In less sure hands than Atkinson you might fuss about the neatness of the weave, but instead you’ll marvel. Bonus: anything by Allen Eskens.

Police Procedural: In the Woods, Tana French

It’s cheating to call French’s work police procedural, although there is police work at the center. French could qualify as literary, or character-driven, or atmospheric, or whodunnit doesn’t actually matter, or just read this. Bonus: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels.

Suspense: The Day She Died, Catriona McPherson

It’s difficult to select one McPherson, but this creepy psychological thriller is as good a place as any. Bonus: for some lighter McPherson, try her Lexy Campbell novels Scot Free and Scot Soda.

Futuristic: The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

With six months until the end of the world, what’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? This Edgar winner is the first book in a fantastic trilogy, with Countdown City and World of Trouble. Note that if you’re in for one, you’ll have to read all three. Bonus: Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

Female Detective: Styx and Stone, James W. Ziskin

You’ve no doubt heard of Sue Graton’s alphabet series (from A is for Alibi to Y is for Yesterday), and Laura Lippman’s Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan novels, and you can’t go wrong with these. But if you want something different, try Ziskin’s fun Ellie Stone series.

Read the Book Instead: Fletch, by Gregory McDonald

Many people loved the movie version with Chevy Chase as reporter I. M. Fletcher, but only if they hadn’t read the novel—which was fast and funny, and also dark and deceptively deep, and with a twist you wouldn’t see coming. Bonus: read the first three in this order: Fletch, then Confess, Fletch, then Fletch’s Fortune.

Be sure to check out our Tips for Building a Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club