Wondering what to recommend for your next book club book?
My favorite (unusual) book club suggestions
After years of reading with a book club (and for fun), I've found a number of books that are unusual, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable. These are not the most popular book club books, rather it's a list of unusual books you might not find on any other reading list. You'll have a great book club discussion with any of the titles.
by Sarah Waters
From the Amazon review: ... the tale is narrated by two orphaned girls whose lives are inextricably linked. [...] Even at its densest moments--and remember, this is smoggy London circa 1862--it remains mesmerizing. A damning critique of Victorian moral and sexual hypocrisy, a gripping melodrama, and a love story to boot, this book ingeniously reworks some truly classic themes.
Here's what I'll say: I didn't see it coming. I don't often get completely taken in by a plot, but I did with this book. Kudos to Sarah Waters.
by Mark Dunn
Word-lovers, unite. This is our book.
First off, say the title a couple of times fast and you'll get it. Ella lives in a fictional town named after Nevin Nollop, the guy who penned “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” Letters start falling off his statue and drop out of the novel at the same time. Now, that's clever. From Amazon: ... a hilarious and moving story of one girl’s fight for freedom of expression, as well as a linguistic tour de force sure to delight word lovers everywhere."
by Richard Adams
I thought I knew all about this book even though I'd never read it. "Yup," I thought, "that's the classic about rabbits. It was all the rage 30 years ago. No way could it be good." Well, I was wrong. It's a classic because it's amazing. I don't understand why it would ever be considered a kid's book. It's written with a timeless, ageless theme and some incredibly real characters.
by Dodie Smith
This book was originally written in 1948, was unavailable for quite some time, but is now back in print. The story centers around a young woman living in a crumbling castle who wants to become a writer. One Amazon reviewer wrote, "Cassandra is a witty, pensive, observant heroine, just the right voice for chronicling the perilous cusp of adulthood. Some people have compared I Capture the Castle to the novels of Jane Austen, and it's just as well-plotted and witty. But the Mortmains are more bohemian--as much like the Addams Family as like any of Austen's characters. Dodie Smith, author of 101 Dalmations, wrote this novel in 1948. And though the story is set in the 1930s, it still feels fresh, and well deserves its reputation as a modern classic."
Here's a little more praise: "This book has one of the most charismatic narrators I've ever met."--J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series
More about "I Capture the Castle" on Amazon
by Ken Follet
Each of these books, at a staggering 1,000 pages, may not be for the faint of heart. (Or weak of arms.) Both books are brilliantly written historical fiction set in Follet's fictional English town - Kingsbridge. The first book, Pillars of the Earth, deals with the building of a cathedral in the 12th century. World Without End follows 200 years later. The characters, though not always true to the era, are richly developed. This is a rewarding read.
by E. L. Doctorow
This fictionalized account of the über-hoarders, the Collyer brothers, is a slim book and loaded with great opportunities for book club discussions.
Doctorow takes the story of the Collyers, who upon their death had more than 100 tons of debris (collectibles?) removed from their home on 5th Avenue in New York City, and creates the story of their inner lives. He's taken all kinds of liberties with details, including when they died, to include historical references that actually make sense to the story.
I didn't expect to like this book quite as much as I did. It's definitely quirky. At just over 200 pages, it's a perfect book club book for those times of year when shorter books make sense. Without a doubt, you'll be thinking about what you store and collect.
by Benedict and Nancy Freedman
This book was popular when it was first written more than 50 years ago. Lots of people read it when they were young and now have come back around to it again. With close to a 5-star rating on Amazon, the popularity still holds today.
Mrs. Mike is based on the true story of Katherine Mary O'Fallon, a young woman who left Boston to visit her uncle in the unsettled Northwest Territory in the early 20th Century. She stayed and became, you guessed it, Mrs. Mike. In dealing with that process, you'll find all kinds of reviews that call it a love story. I really didn't think of it that way. I thought of it more as a tribute to the women who made settling the west and the great north even possible.
This is one book that gives you an incredible view of women's lives in the not-so-distant past. Whenever I hear about wagon trains, I think of the women who bounced along on those wicked things with sick kids and a smelly husband -- always half hungry and terrified of all the things that could (and sometimes did) happen to their kids. This book gives you a great feel for what it was actually like.
by Robert Penn Warren
This Pulitzer Prize winner is on nearly every "Best Books of the 20th Century" list you see. It certainly deserves its place on that list.
The book is always referred to as a ficionalized account of Governor Huey Long of Louisiana, one colorful politician and character. And maybe it is that, but it's much more than a book about politics. With an incredible view of the American South in some of our ugliest time in history, this book is about love and loyalty, betrayal, forgiveness and sometimes doing the right thing for the wrong reason. Robert Penn Warren's writing is a perfect balance between too much and too little detail. This is one of those books that you just must read at some point in your life.
by G.B. Edwards
“Imagine a weekend spent in deep conversation with a superb old man, a crusty, intelligent, passionate and individualistic character at the peak of his powers as a raconteur, and you will have a very good idea of the impact of The Book of Ebenezer Le Page…It amuses, it entertains, it moves us… Ebenezer’s voice presides over all and its creation is a tremendous achievement.” —The Washington Post (Doug Lang)
It's all that and more. This classic is fiction that reads like non-fiction. It may become one of your very favorite books.
by Ivan Doig
It's too bad that Ivan Doig's work has been categorized as "western." They may be set in the early days of the west as families settled and scratched out a life, but they're really books about people: their friendships, hardships, loves and conflicts. The first 100 pages may feel slow to you, but just settle back and enjoy some of the most beautifully crafted sentences you'll find in a book.
Ivan Doig's books have a loyal following of people who feel lucky to have discovered him. In addition to "Dancing at the Rascal Fair," other favorites are "This House of Sky" and "The Whistling Season." You just can't go wrong with one of his books. Even if you don't love reading about tough people in tough times, you have to admire his skill as a writer.
BTW ... if you love Wallace Stegner, you'll love Ivan Doig. They're cut from the same cloth. Doig's books will often be referred to as "literature" rather than fiction or historical fiction musch the same way Stegner's books are described.
by Caleb Carr
Think CSI in 1896 New York. Police commissioner Theodore Roosevelt (yes, that one) puts together a unique group of people to solve a crime that's plagued the city. There's a mix of early police detective techniques and a richly detailed view of life in late-19th- century New York City. This book moves along at a clip. The details about the city and life during the time are a fascinating addition to the mystery.
This is historical fiction because of the setting, but it's really a first rate mystery.
by Nevil Shute
Though this book starts with the drama and horror of prisoners during WWII, it's really a wonderful story of love, dedication, strength, adventure and sheer pluckiness. The book was written in 1950, so expect some dated ways of describing things. But also expect to be thoroughly transported to the world of Jean Paget. Yes, it's fiction -- but it reads like a biography.
If you read On The Beach years ago (when nuclear doomsday novels were the rage) you might be expecting something similar. It could not be more different. The heart of this book is a strong, smart, driven woman and the life she chose to lead. I cant help but wonder who inspired Shute to write about such a thoroughly capable and independent woman.
by Florence King
This witty, wicked memoir will actually make you laugh out loud. (Fair warning - it's not for the faint of heart.) Florence's grandmother and mother dedicated themselves to rearing a Perfect Southern Lady - something that just never happened completely. All was not lost. Early on, Florence lets us know that "no matter which sex I went to bed with, I never smoked on the street." If you have a tiny bit of southern in your heritage, this book is even funnier. This is early Florence King. She's not quite as curmudgeonly as she became over the course of her writing career -- but the seeds are sure there.
by Barbara Kingsolver
You really can't go wrong with a Barbara Kingsolver book. Though there are more, one of these will provide for a wonderful discussion following a terrific read.
The Poisonwood Bible follows a missionary and his family into the Belgian Congo in 1959 and includes basic themes of religion, family, Africa, political instability and more. Written from the perspective of the individual family members, the author's writing skill is really something to behold.
Prodigal Summer is really all about connections - between people and their environments just for starters - but really about the connections between everything. This is perhaps one of the 5 most popular books our book club has read in nearly 18 years.
Read reviews on Goodreads. (With links to the other books.)
Crossing to Safety
by Wallace Stegner
One of the best descriptions of "Angle of Repose" is in a review on Amazon: "[...] this remains not merely one of the greatest novels ever written about the West, but one of the finest American novels of the second half of the twentieth century. Stegner remains a staggeringly underappreciated as a writer. He wrote in a beautiful, distinctive, gorgeous prose that not even his extremely illustrious stable of students (Edward Abbey, Wendell Berry, Thomas McGuane, Ken Kesey and Larry McMurtry, Ivan Doig, and many, many others) has been able to match. Edward Abbey said shortly before Stegner's death following an automobile accident that he was the only living American writer deserving of the Nobel Prize, and I believe he was right."
This is what I know: Angle of Repose is my favorite book. It won a Pulitzer at the time and still continues to be regarded as an American masterpiece, one of those classics that get better with every reading.
Crossing to Safety is an entirely different kind of book, but no less accompished. Stegner explores the real inner-workings of quiet lives through the friendship of two couples. Don't miss it.
by Wallace Stegner
The book gets its name from an old song about the Big Rock Candy Mountains, a mythical Garden of Eden for bums with cigarette trees and lemonade springs, "[...] a land of milk and honey, Where a bum can stay for many a day, and he won't need any money."
You know those dreamers, the people with enormous gifts who are always looking for the miraculous? And their long-suffering supporters, who believe with them? This is their story. While it might be set in the early part of the 20th century, it doesn't stay there. Stegner has a way of helping you sort through your thoughts about those people.
You can read this book for book club and find plenty to discuss. This book, like his others, have such fully-formed, flawed characters. Or read it because you want to read a superb account of the development of the American West through the eyes of someone who lived it. Wallace Stegner is amazing.
by Betty Smith
From Amazon's review: [...] Betty Smith's poignant, honest novel created a big stir when it was first published over 50 years ago. Her frank writing about life's squalor was alarming to some of the more genteel society, but the book's humor and pathos ensured its place in the realm of classics--and in the hearts of readers, young and old. (Ages 10 and older) --Emilie Coulter
"A profoundly moving novel, and an honest and a true one. It cuts right to the heart of life." -- --Orville Prescott, New York Times
There is nothing I can say about this memorable book that hasn't already been said. It's a must-read.
by Cormac McCarthy
For some reason, I never wanted to read "All the Pretty Horses" because I thought it was some kind of old fashioned western. I was wrong. Yes, McCarthy writes about the west. But he does so with such a distinctive voice and perspective that his books can't be called "just a western." They really can't be called "just" anything. You'll often see them referred to as "contemporary masterpieces."
"All The Pretty Horses" is the start of "The Border Trilogy" and introduces us to the character of John Grady Cole. While this is perhaps a coming-of-age book of sorts, it's much more. Trust me on this one and just read it. You'll be glad there are more books in the series.
by Willa Cather
Choose one or both. If it's your first introduction to Willa Cather, you'll wonder how you ever missed these books. If you read them before, they're a pleasure to read again.
About O Pioneers!: From a terrific review on Goodreads: "A pioneer should have imagination, should be able to enjoy the idea of things more than the things themselves (27)," Willa Cather writes in her most famous novel, and with it, proves herself to be a pioneer of American literature. This is a must-read for anyone interested in an astute take on the westward expansion of our nation, told from the point-of-view of the female immigrants who had the vision to see what this country could become. [...] These characters and events will stay with you for a long, long time."
About My Ántonia: This might seem like a perfectly ordinary story about the hardships of the plains and settlers. If you had to read it in junior high, it's likely you didn't appreciate the complexities of the relationships or of Cather's writing. Do yourself a favor and read it again as an adult. It's a different book.
by Alfred Lansing
This is the true account of polar explorer Ernest Shackleton's doomed 1914 Antarctic exploration. As TIME magazine said in a review, Shackleton "defined heroism." This is one of the most amazing stories you'll ever read. It's a lesson in bravery, persistence and resourcefulness in the most horrific of situations. A friend said in about this book, "On a scale of 1 to 5, I'd give this book 6 stars."
While Lansing's book is perhaps the best known book on Endurance's terrible and desperate trip, another book by Caroline Alexander includes some amazing photos. This book is a perfect accompaniment.
by Beryl Markham
There's a bunch of scuttlebutt about this book ... like "did she really write it?" I don't know. What I do know is that it's a fabulous book. But, don't take my word for it. Here's a review from Ernest Hemmingway:
"Did you read Beryl Markham's book, West with the Night? I knew her fairly well in Africa and never would have suspected that she could and would put pen to paper except to write in her flyer's log book. As it is, she has written so well, and marvelously well, that I was completely ashamed of myself as a writer. [...] She can write rings around all of us who consider ourselves writers. The only parts of it that I know about personally, on account of having been there at the time and heard the other people's stories, are absolutely true . . . I wish you would get it and read it because it is really a bloody wonderful book."
by Martin Cruz Smith
This author is best known for Gorky Park and the books that followed, but if I could have my say, this is the book for which he would be the most famous.
The book is set in the coal mining region of Victorian England. It's the story of a British engineer who is sent to the mine are to solve a mysterious disappearance and the amazing woman he meets in the process. Get this book and then clear your calendar for a day. You won't be able to put it down. A friend and I read this book 15 years ago when it came out and still to this day, all I have to do is mention the title and we both say in unison "I loved that book."
I think whenever someone compiles a list of "The Best Books You've Never Heard Of" this book should be somehwere near the top of the list.
by John le Carré
Graham Greene called this book the "finest spy story ever written." There's no question le Carré knows what he's talking about (a) and (b) he's a terrific writer. This is a quick read, coming in at just over 200 pages. But, it's not a simple book. The twisty plot keeps you thinking. It's been around more than 50 years and really defined the spy genré. This isn't a James Bond-style novel. This is a brainy look at espionage that makes you think.
by Harper Lee
I'm so glad to see this book appearing on book club book lists more and more all the time. Like everyone else in the US, I read this in high school because I had to. I read it again now, as an adult, because I wanted to. It was an entirely different book. There's a humor I missed as a teenager. And then there are the themes of race and class. Every time I think we've moved beyond that, I am reminded that we have not. I think each reading allows something new to come to the surface. Simply amazing.
by Will Weaver
This is a quick read that you can devour in one sitting. Though it is a wonderful collection, I have the same complaint about this book that I have about many short story collections: I want more. Weaver has a gift for writing about small towns with a sympathetic eye and for crafting memorable characters in a very few pages.
The main story in this collection was the basis for the movie "Sweet Land," a really lovely period movie with more detail than the story from which it got its inspiration. This is the rare case of a movie being equal to the book.
by John Irving
This isn't a fast read, but boy, is it worth the time. Irving's work is familiar to most readers ... books like The Cider House Rules, Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire and A Widow for One Year. It's this book, among all of his work, that stays with me. Yes, Owen is a truly unique character. But, it's rare that a book can touch on friendship, tragedy, faith, doubt and politics all at the same time. There's so much to discuss with this book. Owen came to live at my house while I was reading and when the book was done, I missed him. When an author can do that with a character, I feel like they hit it out of the park. (Sorry for the baseball metaphor.)
A little warning about John Irving if this is your first experience with his writing ... it takes him a little while to set up the characters and the story. Be patient. It's worth it. The result is a collection of complex characters and subplots that all weave together to form the whole story.
I read this book for the first time years ago and loved it. I raved about it for days and searched for other people who had also read it. (I will say that it took me a while to get used to THE ALL CAPS QUOTES WHEN OWEN SPEAKS, but once I got used to that, it just flowed.) Not long ago I listened to this book to see if I still loved it. Yes, I do. I perhaps love it more now than I did before. This is a wonderful book to listen to on a long car trip. It appeals to both men and women, but may be too complex for younger listeners.
by Ann Patchett
East of Eden
by John Steinbeck
Darkness, Take My Hand
by Dennis Lehane
The Grapes of Wrath
by John Steinbeck
Sometimes a Great Notion
by Ken Kesey
The Winds of War
War and Remembrance
by Herman Wouk
The Bonfire of the Vanities
by Tom Wolfe
The Power of One
by Bryce Courtenay