Blog

Lora

The Dearly Beloved

In the 1950s, we meet four characters whose lives will be intertwined for the next 50 years. Charles is from a wealthy Boston family and the son of a Harvard professor. Lily's parents are killed when she is a teenager and their absence leaves a void inside her for the rest of her life. James grows up poor in Chicago, the son of an alcoholic. Nan is the daughter of a southern minister, and sees firsthand the inner workings of being part of a family where faith and helping others is an integral part of life.

When Charles and James decide to take jobs as the co-pastors of the Third Presbyterian Church in Greenwich Village, the men, along with their wives, Lily and Nan, must live their lives amid the turmoil of the 1960s. They find their beliefs challenged by their circumstances and the other individuals in the quartet. In The Dearly Beloved (2019) by Cara Wall, the reader is immersed in the four characters' lives as revealed through moving, emotional writing.

Jennifer

The Mars Room

This beautifully written and moving novel opens with Romy Hall serving a double life sentence after she murders her stalker. Her difficult life is unveiled in a nonlinear timeline. The Mars Room is a bleak story, filled with characters who have so much working against them—but the author deftly includes comedic moments to enhance the story.

Rachel Kushner writes about the forgotten members of society in such a way that you'll be thinking about this book long after you've finished the novel. The Mars Room is an excellent choice to discuss with your book club. Topics include class and privilege, gender and sexism, incarceration, and writing and symbolism.

This is not Orange is the New Black. If you enjoyed An American Marriage by Tayari Jones or Evicted by Matthew Desmond, try this novel. Kushner adeptly narrates her novel, putting the reader in the mind of Romy—definitely worth a listen!

Catherine T.

The Ten Thousand Doors of January

I was feeling the need for a good book to escape into and Alix E. Harrow really delivered with whimsical prose and a fantastical story in The Ten Thousand Doors of January (2019).

Set at the turn of the 20th century in Vermont, we follow the story of January, a young mixed race child in the care of a wealthy collector, Mr. Locke. Her guardian employs her father to travel the world searching for and obtaining rare treasures and curiosities, which are then added to Mr. Locke's extensive collection or sold at secretive auctions.

At the age of seven, while on a trip to rural Kentucky with Mr. Locke, January opens a dilapidated blue door amongst some ruins in a field and is briefly transported to another world, a world that smells of salt and stone, a world that feels strangely welcoming. Her few short moments there leave her wondering if it was a real memory or just her imagination. Then, at the age of 17, her father disappears while on one of his trips and a book mysteriously appears in a treasure chest in Mr. Locke's collection—a book that carries the scent of adventure and other worlds and tells of ten thousand 'doors'. And so begins an upheaval of January's life and the opening of new doors.

Lovers of Narnia and The Time Traveler's Wife will enjoy this beautifully written book, full of the power of the written word, love, and strong female characters.

Catherine T.

Boy Swallows Universe

A coming of age story set in the gritty, drug-ridden streets of suburban Brisbane, Australia in the 1980s. Despite the ugly background of criminals, violence, and poverty, this is a beautiful story of a boy finding his voice and destiny.

Twelve-year-old Eli Bell is surrounded by drug addicts and dealers. His brother, August, is selectively mute, his babysitter is an ex-con renowned for multiple jailbreaks and his stepfather Lyle is involved with the local heroin dealing business. Eli has a big dream to become a journalist on the crime beat. He's honing his writing skills by exchanging letters with a criminal in jail and practicing being observant while accompanying Lyle on his drug deals. When everything starts to go wrong, Eli will rely on his skills and contacts to survive.

With secret rooms, heroin deals, a jail break-in and missing people, this book doesn't lack for action. It also shines a light on the strength of parental and sibling relationships. A tough upbringing can result in unbreakable bonds.

Boy Swallows Universe (2019) is an entertaining debut from Trent Dalton, loosely based on some of his real life experiences.



Catherine T.

The Stationery Shop

Set in 1950s Tehran, this ill-fated love story features teenagers Roya and Bahman. Roya's favorite place is Mr. Fakhri's stationary shop and she goes there every Tuesday after school to indulge her love of novels, poetry, and everything stationery. It is here that she meets Bahman, a young political activist and, despite parental disapproval, class differences, and Iran's political unrest, their love blossoms.

The story actually begins 60 years later in Boston. Raya has spent her adult life in America as an immigrant, always wondering why the love of her life never showed up to their rendezvous in a city square amidst a violent coup. Out of the blue, she discovers that Bahman is a resident in a nursing home nearby. Will visiting him finally give her the answer? Has their love lasted a lifetime?

I really enjoyed this romantic tale by Marjan Kamali, who writes very evocatively of the 1950s streets of Tehran. Her descriptions of Persian food had me looking up recipes, especially for the cooling melon ice that she mentions multiple times in The Stationery Shop (2019). I went out and bought some cantaloupe the next day and it was just as refreshing as I imagined!



Jennifer

A Place for Us by Fatima Farheen Mirza (2018)

In this lyrical and leisurely novel, debut author Fatima Farheen Mirza introduces us to a Muslim Indian family gathering for a wedding. The story is nonlinear, jumping forward and backward, giving us glimpses of the siblings' childhood, their parents' initial meetings, and their post-wedding relationships.

A Place for Us is a moving story shared from multiple perspectives. This interesting narrative structure might sound challenging, but the story is not difficult to follow. Read this book when you have a chance to delve deep into a story and emotionally invest in characters.

A great pick for book clubs: discuss familial relationships and expectations, cultural heritage and traditions, and characters and their choices. 


Lora

Normal People by Sally Rooney (2019)

Marianne and Connell begin a secret relationship when they are seniors in high school. Connell is popular and outgoing, but at times feels insecure since his mother, Lorraine, cleans houses for a living. Marianne, meanwhile, is wealthy, and a loner in part because of her abusive family background. Normal People recounts their relationship over the next four years as they go to college and decide what to do with their lives. It a story of two people finding their way to adulthood and the strong bond they develop with each other. Sally Rooney's latest novel is a great pick for book clubs.




Catherine T.

Golden Child by Claire Adam (2019)

In her debut novel, Claire Adam takes us on a tragic, thought-provoking journey to rural Trinidad. The Deyalsingh family struggles financially, but father, Clyde, finds it hard to accept help and feels suffocated by his wife's extended family. Their twin sons, Peter and Paul, are at the difficult age of 13. Peter is the 'golden child,' both academic and diligent, while Paul has always been deemed mentally challenged due to complications at birth.

The story revolves around the sudden disappearance of Paul when Clyde is faced with a parent's worst nightmare. Claire Adam's Golden Child is an emotional roller coaster of a book!



Kathy

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes (2011)

senseI was looking for a short, yet thought-provoking audiobook to act as a sort of palette cleanse between two light-hearted, popular works of fiction, so I opted for The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes. It turned out to be the perfect choice.

In less than five hours, we journey through the life of the narrator, Tony, and the story of two relationships from his youth, one a friend and one a lover. Now in his sixties, Tony is confronted with the truth of those relationships and forced to reevaluate his past behavior and his own carefully curated story of self. The audiobook narration (by Richard Morant) was terrific—the voice you hear becomes Tony, which really brings the story to life. This character-driven book examines the importance of memory in shaping self and questions what we remember as truth. I recommend it for fans of Kazuo Ishiguro and Marilynne Robinson.
Emily

The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin (2018)

immortalistsIn 1969, the Gold siblings of Manhattan seek out a woman who is said to be able to tell you the day of your death. While it begins as innocent curiosity, the children are not ready for the weight of the knowledge. The Immortalists by Chloe Benjamin follows the four siblings over the next fifty years as they attempt to live with prophecies hanging over their heads. As they depart to live their own lives, each sibling handles the information differently and their lives are shaped by their interpretation.

Divided into four sections (each one following a sibling), the novel intertwines their stories. This book paints a portrait of the hardships of trying to live when you know when you will die and examines the fine line between destiny and personal choice.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoys books with a hint of magical realism and books with a strong family dynamic.
Joe

All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014)

allthelightSet in WWII, this book alternates between the life of a young German orphan (soon to be soldier) named Werner, who is a whiz with electronics, and Marie-Laure, a young, blind French girl who is forced to leave her home in Paris when the Germans invade. Their lives intersect in a seaside town called San-Malo as the Allies are about to bomb the city and repeatedly flashes back in time showing how they came to this moment.

All the Light We Cannot See has very short chapters, so it has the feel of being fast paced, but the novel is also very detailed with tactile and audio descriptions of how Marie senses the world around her. Anthony Doerr’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel depicts the horrors of WWII from a unique point of view revealing both the evil within men and also the heroism, too.

If you enjoyed this novel, check out related book lists: Novels of WWII and WWII and the Women in the Resistance.
Kathy

Manhattan Beach by Jennifer Egan (2017)

manhattanbeachJennifer Egan’s epic novel Manhattan Beach is set in the Brooklyn Naval Yards during World War II. This coming-of-age novel features Anna Kerrigan as a fiercely independent young woman who longs to serve the war effort as a diver, an occupation reserved solely for men in 1940s America. Anna’s underwater training takes her deep into the murky waters of New York Harbor, while her quest to uncover the mystery that has torn her family apart leads her into the dark underworld of organized crime.

Manhattan Beach was long-listed for the National Book Award in 2017. I recommend giving this one a listen — the audiobook narration by Vincent Piazza of Boardwalk Empire adds the perfect touch of noir to this historic novel.
Heather

Fish in a Tree by Lynda Mullaly Hunt (2015)

fishinatreeA fascinating and enlightening story, Fish in a Tree follows a sixth grade girl who always struggled in school, but never could understand why until a persistent, caring teacher finally helps diagnose her with dyslexia. The author herself experienced a similar childhood to Ally, which gives so much depth of perspective to the character's struggle with an inability to read and write. Once diagnosed, Ally begins to discover through perseverance that a learning disability does not define who she is or her intelligence.

I only knew the basic symptoms of dyslexia prior to reading Fish in a Tree; however, I now feel a whole new appreciation for those who struggle with this and similar learning disorders on a daily basis because of Lynda Mullaly Hunt’s thoughtful and personal testimony incorporated into her novel.

Fish in a Tree is among the 2019 Bluestem Award nominees for the State of Illinois, designed for students in grades 3-5.
Joan

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger (2013)

In William Kent Krueger’s novel, narrator Frank remembers the summer of 1961 when his perspective on life changed forever. A smart aleck thirteen year old, Frank thought he knew it all. He and his younger brother Jake are faced with multiple killings in their small Minnesota town and figure out the awful truth behind the hardest death of all.

Part mystery, part poignant family drama, Ordinary Grace shows how bad things happen to good people and what you see is not always the whole story. It took the innocence of childhood to see beyond the surface. A tender epilogue set forty years later ties up loose ends and shows how the summer of 1961 truly shaped the lives of the Drum family.
Denise

Small Great Things by Jodi Picoult (2016)

I haven’t read a Jodi Picoult book in a long time, but I’m so glad I decided to read this one. Small Great Things is one of the most thought provoking and inflammatory books I’ve read in some time. It focuses on issues of race and prejudice in a way that I, and probably many others, have not considered. The story is told from the perspectives of three characters: Ruth (an African-American labor and delivery nurse), Turk (a white supremacist father of a newborn baby in Ruth’s hospital), and Kennedy (Ruth’s defense attorney). Each viewpoint sheds a different light on the issue of racism. We learn that we all have much to learn about how we perceive each other and behave towards each other.

The characters were believable, although not always likable. Ruth was intelligent, sympathetic, and strong. You can’t help but get incensed by the injustices she has faced. It was difficult to read at times, especially the chapters told from Turk’s perspective. The following two quotes summarize the messages in this book:
Benjamin Franklin: “Justice will not be served until those who are unaffected are as outraged as those who are.”

The title refers to a quote attributed to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “If I cannot do great things, I can do small things that are great.”