New & noteworthy books ...
the best book club selections for 2012
Trying to figure out what to read for book club in 2012? This list will help you find some unusual titles among the sections with lots of buzz.
Here's another great resource for finding great book club books. This list from Amazon covers many of my favorites: The Best Books of 2011 by Amazon.
by Erik Larson
Well, now. Erik Larson scared me to death with "The Devil in the White City." I think our book club discussion involved phrases like "ewwwww" and "sick." Once again, he has written a book with his uncanny ability to write non-fiction in a compelling way. This time it's about one family's life in Hitler's Berlin.
by Erin Morgenstern
Don't miss this debut. It's a lovely, though dark, book about a magical circus and its stars. It's incredibly captivating, clever and original. Unfortunately, the book has had so much hype that you might expect it to be on the top 10 of all times. Don't expect that and you won't be disappointed. It's magical and imaginative. And it's very easy to picture what the movie will look like. The imagery is robust.
by Amor Towles
What a fabulous glimpse of 1930's NYC. The City is just as much a character in this book as the individuals who make up its colorful cast. Without thinking about it much, I instantly started to picture the underground jazz haunts, the cheap apartments and the secretarial pool. It's a visual novel with short, rich descriptions that have texture.
Amor Towles is now in the Wally Lamb category of a man who can write in a woman's voice and nail it.
by Nicole Krauss
This bestseller may have been overlooked by book clubs. From the Amazon review: The History of Love spans of period of over 60 years and takes readers from Nazi-occupied Eastern Europe to present day Brighton Beach. A lost book, a mystery, some history ... there you have the makings for a great discussion.
by Gary D. Schmidt
This book has been out for a few years, but may have been overlooked by book clubs. From the Amazon review: Gary D. Schmidt offers an unforgettable antihero in "The Wednesday Wars"—a wonderfully witty and compelling novel about a teenage boy’s mishaps and adventures over the course of the 1967–68 school year.
by Elizabeth Letts
This is the story of Snowman, a broken-down old plowhorse who achieved incredible victories in show jumping in the late 50's. Charming book with a "you can do it!" message. You've got to love those real-life stories that are a) interesting and b) well-written.
More about "The Eighty-Dollar Champion:
Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation" on Amazon
by Gayle Tzemach Lemmon
From the Amazon description: The Dressmaker of Khair Khana tells the incredible true story of this unlikely entrepreneur who mobilized her community under the Taliban. Former ABC News reporter Gayle Tzemach Lemmon spent years on the ground reporting Kamila's story, and the result is an unusually intimate and unsanitized look at the daily lives of women in Afghanistan. These women are not victims; they are the glue that holds families together; they are the backbone and the heart of their nation. Afghanistan's future remains uncertain as debates over withdrawal timelines dominate the news.
The Dressmaker of Khair Khana moves beyond the headlines to transport you to an Afghanistan you have never seen before. This is a story of war, but it is also a story of sisterhood and resilience in the face of despair. Kamila Sidiqi's journey will inspire you, but it will also change the way you think about one of the most important political and humanitarian issues of our time.
by David Foster Wallace
The death of this talented author is a huge loss. He was perhaps best known for "Infinite Jest" plus a host of other books and articles that appeared in a wide variety of places. This, his final book, was unfinished at the time of his death. It's been released that way, but that has not taken anything away from its popularity. This review is typical: "It could hardly be more engaging. The Pale King is by turns funny, shrewd, suspenseful, piercing, smart, terrifying and rousing." (Laura Miller, Salon )
by Kristina McMorris
This well-reviewed debut novel centers around three women in Chicago during WWII. Filled with great research and descriptions, it's perfect for book clubs who want to include som historical fiction in the lineup.
by Patrick deWitt
How about this review: “…gritty, as well as deadpan and often very comic…deWitt has chosen a narrative voice so sharp and distinctive…it’s very narrowing of possibilities opens new doors in the imagination.” (New York Times Book Review )
This is deWitt's second novel and the list of accolades is a mile long. It's a stylish western with all the parts that make a great book.
More about "The Sisters Brothers: A Novel" on Amazon
by Téa Obrecht
Here's an author to watch: Téa Obreht was born in Belgrade in the former Yugoslavia in 1985 and has lived in the United States since the age of twelve. Her writing has been published in The New Yorker, The Atlantic, Harper's, and The Guardian, and has been anthologized in The Best American Short Stories and The Best American Nonrequired Reading. She has been named by The New Yorker as one of the twenty best American fiction writers under forty and included in the National Book Foundation's list of 5 Under 35. Téa Obreht lives in New York.
by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
We have a couple of people in our book club who are just superb gardeners. I can't imagine a better book for May or June.
From Amazon: A mesmerizing, moving, and elegantly written debut novel, The Language of Flowers beautifully weaves past and present, creating a vivid portrait of an unforgettable woman whose gift for flowers helps her change the lives of others even as she struggles to overcome her own troubled past.
The Victorian language of flowers was used to convey romantic expressions: honeysuckle for devotion, asters for patience, and red roses for love. But for Victoria Jones, it’s been more useful in communicating grief, mistrust, and solitude. After a childhood spent in the foster-care system, she is unable to get close to anybody, and her only connection to the world is through flowers and their meanings.
More popular book club books from 2011
Cutting for Stone
by Abraham Verghese
This is the story of twin brothers, orphaned at birth, who survive and somehow thrive in an area near Addis Ababa. With its well-developed characters and the way the story moves, I was reminded of John Irving -- especially "A Prayer For Owen Meany" and "The Cider House Rules." Even though I missed the characters when it was over, I didn't feel cheated. The story wraps up so completely, leaving no loose ends.
This is an author to watch. He's an accomplished physician and professor at Stanford's School of Medicine. Plus, he studied at the Iowa Writers Workshop and has an MFA from the University of Iowa. He grew up near Addis Ababa (where Cutting for Stone begins) and has since had an interesting and diverse lifetime of experience here in the US. Goodreads has a nice bio.
P.S. This is a wonderful book to listen to. Here's the Audible.com link for "Cutting for Stone."
by Ann Patchett
This must be the year for popular medical ethics books. There's no question that the drug in the center of this book will generate quite a discussion. You understand its purpose but if it should be developed or used is a dilemma.
From Goodreads:Sometimes being on the vanguard of scientific progress thrusts you into the teeth of danger. For Minnesota pharmaceutical researcher Dr. Marina Singh, that means being sent into the remotest region of the Amazon jungle to track down her former mentor. Finding Dr. Annick Swenson promises to be perilous: The last scientist assigned to find her has disappeared too. What follows is the most ambitious novel yet by Bel Canto author Ann Patchett as its adventure story opens into a penetrating study of personalities, loyalties, and ethics. Editor's recommendation.
by Laura Hillenbrand
This is perhaps the best short review I've seen: "Ambitious and powerful… Hillenbrand is intelligent and restrained, and wise enough to let the story unfold for itself. Her research is thorough, her writing crystalline. Unbroken is gripping in an almost cinematic way." The New York Times Book Review
Laura Hillenbrand has an incredible talent for making non-fiction as exciting as fiction. Midway during this book, I had to stop and do some homework on the main "character." I had become so attached to him. I needed to know that he survived.
This is one of those rare books that you can give to your dad, your grandpa, your aunt, your mom or anyone else who loves a great books. You can read it for book club or for pure enjoyment. The audio version is superb.
by Barbara Kingsolver
How does she do it? Once again, Barbara Kingsolver has written a book that's a delight to read and provides for a spirited discussion. The Lacuna brings together the stories of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, Pearl Harbor, Leo Trotsky, a guy who can mix plaster and more. I found myself saying "I didn't know that ..." throughout the book. For me, this book didn't equal "The Poisonwood Bible" or "Prodigal Summer" but it's a splendid read all on its own.
by Karl Marlantes
From Amazon's description: "This is the story of Waino Mellas, and his comrades in Bravo Company, who are dropped into the mountain jungle of Vietnam as boys and forced to fight their way into manhood. Standing in their way are not merely the North Vietnamese but also monsoon rain and mud, leeches and tigers, disease and malnutrition. Almost as daunting, it turns out, are the obstacles they discover between each other: racial tension, competing ambitions, and duplicitous superior officers. But when the company finds itself surrounded and outnumbered by a massive enemy regiment, the Marines are thrust into the raw and all-consuming terror of combat. The experience will change them forever.
Matterhorn is a visceral and spellbinding novel about what it is like to be a young man at war. It is an unforgettable novel that transforms the tragedy of Vietnam into a powerful and universal story of courage, camaraderie, and sacrifice: a parable not only of the war in Vietnam but of all war, and a testament to the redemptive power of literature."
Here's what I thought: I really thought I had a decent idea of what Viet Nam was like from everything else I've read and seen. This book made me realize that I don't have a clue. Brilliantly written with thoughtful, complex characters, this book really drives home how misguided that whole war actually was. And, how our government destroyed an entire generation. This is simply a brilliant, intense book.
by Helen Simonson
When I first read this a few months ago, I wrote on Goodreads: "What a charming little book! Major Pettigrew is drawn as this fussy old man stuck in his proper ways. Yet, he has this wonderful acerbic wit and an ability to change and be influenced by emotion. The only reason I didn't give this 5 stars is that it's not on a par with Poisonwood Bible or Angle of Repose or any of the other books that I think are true 5-star books. But, it's a wonderful read."
Mrs Ali, the shopkeeper of Pakistani descent, is easy to love from the beginning. It takes longer to like Major Pettigrew at all, but once you do, you can't help but fall in love with him. Helen Simonson knows how to craft wonderful characters.
by Rebecca Skloot
I have an enormous admiration for any author who can write non-fiction about something as mundane as a cell line and make it as interesting as the freshest fiction. Skloot was able to pull together the most fascinating (and personal) parts of this history and write it with a compelling urgency.
In a nutshell ... Henrietta, a poor black woman, unknowingly donated the cells that became the first sustainable cell line in the emerging medical research industry in the middle 1950s. While her cells allowed significant medical research to move forward, her family lived in poverty and -- ironically -- poor health. Once they found out about what her cells had become and the research that was possible because of her, they reacted with gusto. I would have done the same, or more.
There is much to discuss with this book: the writing style, race history, medical research, bio-ethics and more. It's brilliant.
by Siddhartha Mukherjee
I'm really not sure how medical non-fiction has made its way to popular book lists, but I certainly am better for it. We all have watched someone go through the disease. Reading this book made it much easier to understand why some things happened the way they did. And with that knowledge comes a new kind of peace.
From the Amazon review by Lynette Mong: "In 2010, about six hundred thousand Americans, and more than 7 million humans around the world, will die of cancer." With this sobering statistic, physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee begins his comprehensive and eloquent "biography" of one of the most virulent diseases of our time. An exhaustive account of cancer's origins, The Emperor of All Maladies illustrates how modern treatments--multi-pronged chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, as well as preventative care--came into existence thanks to a century's worth of research, trials, and small, essential breakthroughs around the globe. While The Emperor of All Maladies is rich with the science and history behind the fight against cancer, it is also a meditation on illness, medical ethics, and the complex, intertwining lives of doctors and patients. Mukherjee's profound compassion--for cancer patients, their families, as well as the oncologists who, all too often, can offer little hope--makes this book a very human history of an elusive and complicated disease.
The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
by Mary Ann Shaffer, Annie Barrows
I listened to this in May of 2009 and wrote: "Oh, my. What a lovely listen. I devoured this book and immediately listened to it again from the beginning. It finds the sweet spot between being educational, emotional, engrossing and completely entertaining. I missed the characters terribly when I was done. This is such a fine piece of work."
I'm not sure if the book would have had the same impact for me if I had read it instead of listening to it. From what I see in the reviews, it's certainly a favorite with people who like lovely little books with great characters. I can tell you for certain that is was a fabulous listen.
by Emma Donoghue
This was one of the top 3 most popular book club books in 2011. I have not been able to bring myself to read this book. BUT, my friend Danie just read this in her book club, and this is what she had to say:
I tried hard to find something in this book I could say “yes” to, but wow, I just struggled to even get through it. Donoghue chose to write Room: A Novel through the voice of a five-year-old boy, and if we were rewarded with the boy discovering and expressing great truths and insights about the world of the adults, this literary device might have worked. But there were few such nuggets to be had. If you can survive the first hundred pages, you might find some.
Critiquing it from a book club perspective, this novel did have a redeeming quality: it sparked a good discussion.
The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)
Catching Fire (The Hunger Games, #2)
Mockingjay (The Hunger Games, #3)
by Suzanne Collins
I am not the target market for these books. I think they are officially classified as "YA" and it has been a very long time since I was classified that way.
I read the first one of the series for book club, but I don't think it's fair for me to offer my personal opinion. These books are highly rated and very popular. People are reading books (BOOKS! imagine!) because of them. No matter what I think about these particular books, anything that gets people to read is a good thing.
The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie
(Flavia de Luce, #1)
by Alan Bradley
First in a series by a 70-year-old first time novelist! (I guess you'd call that a late bloomer.)
The year is 1950. Flavia is a smart 11-year-old girl, obsessed with science, who travels about on a trusty old bicycle while solving a murder in her village. It's a sweet book. The review on Amazon says it's a combination of "Harriet the Spy and Sherlock Holmes." I wouldn't go quite that far with a Holmes reference, but it's certainly a lovely little book.
I have trouble with the adult words authors sometimes put into their young characters' mouths. In this book, as in others with a child as the lead character, I really have to put that aside in order to get through the book and enjoy it.
P.S. If you like this one, there are two more in the series: The Weed That Strings the Hangman's Bag and A Red Herring Without Mustard.
The Kitchen House
by Kathleen Grissom
I wanted to love this book. It had great reviews and all kinds of interesting comments on Goodreads, Amazon and other sites. I do love historical fiction, though I am deeply troubled when I read about "The Old South." That said, in the end, I didn't love it but can admire the writing.
There are two main characters who are incredibly lifelike on the page. They're well-written characters. There's so much history in the pages, that you feel just a little smarter after you've read it. And then it falls flat.
I know this book has been compared to "The Help," but that's unfair. I would compare this more to something like Schlinder's List -- where the good things that happen are just less bad than they might have been. It's engaging, but only because I was hopeful that someone, anyone would take out a few of the heinous characters and find some relief. There's plenty to discuss here.