The Book Jam Blog
Read our latest reviews
In Mid-March, almost exactly on the one year anniversary of the covid-19 stay at home practices and orders here in New England, one of our favorite bookstores did a ZOOM version of one of their favorite nights of every year - Reading Group Recommendation night.
Because they could not yet gather bookclubs and booksellers in one large room as in previous years -- Carin, Penny, and Liza just pretended their audience was in the store. They talked about a few dozen books published in the past year; and they selected fiction and nonfiction, hardcover and paperback for Book Clubs everywhere. As Liza wrote when we asked her if we could post their list on the Book Jam, "the Reading Group Recommendation evening was lots of fun. While we could not see folks in person, it was great to see everyone's name and imagine who might select which titles for their book clubs to discuss."
The upside of ZOOM, anyone could attend and there is video of the evening for those who missed it. We are trying to focus on the up side a lot these days. And yet, we still are looking forward to being able to attend events inside of our favorite bookstores soon.
The brief reviews we lifted for each of their choices from the Indie Bookstore web site can't do their reviews about each book or the evening justice. So, for those of you who wish to see Carin, Liza, and Penny "in person", a video of the event can be found here - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2wwRU7YmRq4. And, please remember, the reviews all came straight from The Norwich Bookstore website or Indiebound.
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929). Nella Larsen's powerful, thrilling, and tragic tale about the fluidity of racial identity that continues to resonate today. Clare Kendry is living on the edge. Light-skinned, elegant, and ambitious, she is married to a racist white man unaware of her African American heritage, and has severed all ties to her past after deciding to “pass” as a white woman. Clare’s childhood friend, Irene Redfield, just as light-skinned, has chosen to remain within the African American community, and is simultaneously allured and repelled by Clare’s risky decision to engage in racial masquerade for personal and societal gain. After frequenting African American-centric gatherings together in Harlem, Clare’s interest in Irene turns into a homoerotic longing for Irene’s black identity that she abandoned and can never embrace again, and she is forced to grapple with her decision to pass for white in a way that is both tragic and telling. A New York Times Editors’ Choice and now a major motion picture starring Tessa Thompson and Alexander Skarsgård. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennet (2020). Named a best book of 2020 by The New York Times, The Washington Post, NPR, People, TIME, Vanity Fair and Glamour. As Jamie Thomas, Women & Children First, Chicago, IL said in IndieBound, “Brit Bennett’s second novel broke my heart. She doesn’t shy away from the sadness inherent in each character’s life, yet she left me feeling better for having met all of them. I read The Vanishing Half with a sense of hope, despite my dread that terrible things might befall the characters. Desiree and Stella’s story unfolds with a deft delicateness in a book that is astonishingly accomplished and sweeping, and yet so very intimate.”~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart (2020). Shuggie Bain is the unforgettable story of young Hugh "Shuggie" Bain, a sweet and lonely boy who spends his 1980s childhood in run-down public housing in Glasgow, Scotland. Thatcher's policies have put husbands and sons out of work, and the city's notorious drugs epidemic is waiting in the wings.A heartbreaking story of addiction, sexuality, and love, Shuggie Bain is an epic portrayal of a working-class family that is rarely seen in fiction. Recalling the work of Douard Louis, Alan Hollinghurst, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, it is a blistering debut by a brilliant novelist who has a powerful and important story to tell. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Boy Swallows Universe by Trent Dalton (2020). As The Washington Post said in their review, “Boy Swallows Universe hypnotizes you with wonder, and then hammers you with heartbreak. . . . Eli’s remarkably poetic voice and his astonishingly open heart take the day. They enable him to carve out the best of what’s possible from the worst of what is, which is the miracle that makes this novel marvelous.” Plot recap - Eli Bell’s life is complicated. His father is lost, his mother is in jail, and his stepdad is a heroin dealer. The most steadfast adult in Eli’s life is Slim—a notorious felon and national record-holder for successful prison escapes—who watches over Eli and August, his silent genius of an older brother. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Red At The Bone by Jacqueline Woodson (2019). Kelly Brown, Magic City Books, Tulsa, OK says, “although you can read Jacqueline Woodson’s newest novel over the course of one evening, there is nothing breezy about the richness of its story, nothing short about the depth of its characters, nothing quick about the way this book stays with you after you finish reading. Told through five distinct voices, Red at the Bone tracks an African-American family through time and place as an unexpected pregnancy upends and reshapes family and class expectations as well as individual trajectories. Ultimately, the novel is about legacy in every sense of the word. And since Woodson’s writing packs the emotional punch of an epic in a novella number of pages, the legacy of her book is to be read over and over and over again.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Afterlife by Julia Alverez (2020). Antonia Vegas, recently widowed and a retired English Professor, has always found solace in books and in the written word. When she discovers an illegal pregnant migrant hiding in her barn and then her older sister goes missing, her life is upended. Antonia and her three sisters all born in the Dominican Republic but having lived their lives in the US are professional women and very close. They joke and sing and laugh together always sharing their love for their heritage and each other. Her first adult novel in 15 years, Alverez has written a warm, often funny and always heartfelt tale of how we care for ourselves, our family and our fellow neighbors. — From Penny's Picks
Simon the Fiddler by Paulette Jiles (2020). "The country was in chaos, there were no rules, law was a matter of speculation, nobody knew how to buy land or put savings in a bank since there were so few banks, how to get a loan, register a title to land, or legalize a marriage, everybody was dubious about the new federal paper money, there was little mail service, and nobody seemed to know where the roads led." Texas 1866. All Simon the Fiddler wants to do is get to the Red River, buy some land, track down the Irish governess he fell in love with, and live his life. No cakewalk in a state and country turned upside down by the Civil War. Simon the Fiddler is about devotion and drive, steadfastness and spunk, and the power of music as a salve in a nation gone awry. Paulette Jiles (News of the World) writes her tale lyrically, unsentimentally, with humor and tension both. Just read it. — From Carin's Picks
The Vanishing Sky by L. Annette Binder (2020). A powerfully gut-wrenching and beautifully told war story from the perspective of a German family in the last months of WW2. The writing is dynamic and Binder's tale of a family with two sons; a runaway from Hitler's Youth School and the other fighting on the Eastern front, held me spellbound throughout. We seldom have the opportunity to read about innocent German families and their personal experiences of war. Binder's extraordinary novel has opened my eyes and heart and I will carry this story with me for quite awhile. — From Penny's Picks
The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton (2019). There have been numerous books written about World War II over the years focused on the Holocaust and the bravery of people in many countries who risked their lives to save Jews living in their communities. This fast-paced novel centers around the true story of Trus Wijsmuller, a member of the Dutch resistance in the days before WWII, who was a key player in smuggling over 10,000 Jewish children to safety. We follow several families and their individual stories as they go from living in a free society to Nazi controlled Austria. This is an intriguing good summer read. Appropriate for young adults as well. — From Penny's Picks
House on Endless Waters by Emuna Elon (2020). The New York Times Book Review states, “Elon powerfully evokes the obscurity of the past and its hold on the present as we stumble through revelation after revelation with Yoel. As we accompany him on his journey…we share in his loss, surprise, and grief, right up to the novel’s shocking conclusion.” Part family mystery, part wartime drama, House on Endless Waters is “a rewarding meditation on survival” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) and a “deeply immersive achievement that brings to life stories that must never be forgotten” (USA TODAY). ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Ridgerunner by Gil Adamson (2021). So far my favorite of this year (ok, ok, it's early yet). It's many things (including unputdownable) -- an adventure story set in Banff and the Rockies, a coming of age tale, a love story, and a father/son saga. Beautifully written, imbued with the natural world, full of fascinating, well-drawn characters with great back stories, and totally addictive. And set in 1917, so you can escape the present! What more could you want? — From Carin's Picks
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by (2020). Benjamin "Buddy" Bess, Da Shop, Honalulu, HI says, “Sharks in the Time of Saviors is one of the best pieces of contemporary fiction I’ve had the pleasure to read. The fact that the book takes place in Hawaii makes it even more special. The author provides the reader with a unique ‘chicken skin’ experience. The book captures contemporary Hawaii’s history over the past 20+ years, including the socioeconomics of race and being Hawaiian, income disparity, housing issues, family issues, and the diaspora that affects so many families in Hawaii who are unable or unwilling to deal with the cost of living. Truly a master work of art.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Ask Again, Yes by Mary Beth Keane (2019). Anderson McKean, Page and Palette, Fairhope, AL says, “Ask Again, Yes is a compelling, heartbreaking, yet ultimately hopeful novel. Mary Beth Keane is incredibly talented; she does not sugar coat, instead giving readers a compulsively readable family drama. I did not expect to become so completely engrossed in these characters’ stories — two families whose lives become inextricably linked by young love and personal tragedy. Their myriad mistakes and attempts to atone beautifully demonstrate the power and grace found in forgiveness.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson (2019). Laura Simcox, Sunrise Books, High Point, NC says, “When a politician’s young wife hires her old school friend as a nanny for her two stepchildren, the main duty will be to keep the twins out of sight and out of trouble. That’s because the kids’ father is a senator and under serious consideration to be the next Secretary of State. But what if the children can’t control themselves? Who is the best person to take care of children who are afflicted with spontaneous combustion? Obviously, a woman with no fear of fire, nothing to lose, and nothing to gain. At turns hilarious and heartbreaking, this unique novel explores family dynamics, resentment, and retribution, leaving the reader with a new perspective on motherhood and what it means to be loyal to those you love.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Migrations: A novel by Charlotte McConaghy (2019). It's the near future and entire species are dropping like flies. Frannie Shore has tagged several arctic terns -- the bird with the longest migration of all -- and is following them South. She's never been able to stay in any one place for long. But why? What is she escaping, or running towards? In alternating chapters about her past and her present journey on a fishing vessel, you learn why. This book is about motivation and love and secrets and this whole incredible natural world we take way too much for granted. And it is the debut of an enormously talented writer. Loved it.— From Carin's Picks
Between Two Kingdoms by Suleika Joauad (2021). In the summer of 2010 Suleika Jaouad had just graduated from Princeton and moved to Paris. After only a few months there and just beginning a new relationship, she was diagnosed with a form of Leukemia that came with a 35% chance of survival.
In the following three and a half years, in addition to chemo, a clinical trial and a bone transplant, she documented her illness and treatment in a column for The New York Times which garnered her both acclaim and a boat load of people who wrote to her in response to the columns.
When Jaouad finished treatment in New York, she took off with her dog on a cross country trip to meet some of the people with whom she had corresponded during her treatments as well as to decide what the next chapter of her life might be.
This is a well written book that is not about cancer, but it is. Not about travel, but it is. Not about our relationships, but it is. What it is is a very good memoir about life. — From Penny's Picks
Send for Me by Lauren Fox (2021). A lovingly told story about how the emigration from Nazi Germany to America affects three successive generations of women. Fox writes of the interconnectedness of family life and the ties that bind us, one generation to another. As I read this, I held in my mind the similar stories that we are hearing now as people are entering the US from our Southern borders. Can we ever leave behind the lives we grew up in? Our families and our stories? This is a tale of heartbreak as well as of hope. Above all it is a tale of love. — From Penny's Picks
The Mercies by Kiran Millwood Hargrave (2020). Somehow I missed this when it came out a year ago...it's now in paperback and is terrific. Set on an island off Norway in the late 1600's -- a storm at sea kills most of the men, and the grieving women have to learn how to survive by doing all their men did. But their independence (and power) attract witch-hunters...(mostly men) and the battle is joined. Not an easy book, but wonderfully written and absorbing. One of the NYT 100 best of last year... — From Carin's Picks
Hamnet by Maggie O'Farrell (2020). The Boston Globe says, “of all the stories that argue and speculate about Shakespeare’s life… here is a novel … so gorgeously written that it transports you."
In 1580’s England, during the Black Plague a young Latin tutor falls in love with an extraordinary, eccentric young woman in this “exceptional historical novel” (The New Yorker). What results is a luminous portrait of a marriage, a shattering evocation of a family ravaged by grief and loss, and a tender and unforgettable re-imagining of a boy whose life has been all but forgotten, and whose name was given to one of the most celebrated plays of all time, Hamnet is mesmerizing, seductive, impossible to put down—a magnificent leap forward from one of our most gifted novelists. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Memorial Drive by Nathalie Trethewey (2020). In this riveting and wrenching memoir -- so slim but so powerful -- former U.S. Poet Laureate and Pulitzer prize winner Trethewey tells of her life growing up biracial in the South and of the murder of her mother by Trethewey's manipulative and damaged stepfather. Written in precise, almost crystalline prose, Trethewey's tale packs a whallop. One of the most moving memoirs I've read in a long time.
— From Carin's Picks
The Falcon Thief by Joshua Hammer (2020). A “well-written, engaging detective story” (Kirkus Reviews, starred review) about a rogue who trades in rare birds and their eggs—and the wildlife detective determined to stop him. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Becoming by Michelle Obama (2019). Now in paperback—the intimate, powerful, and inspiring memoir by the former First Lady of the United States, featuring a new introduction by Michelle Obama, a letter from the author to her younger self, and a book club guide with 20 discussion questions and a 5-question Q&A. New york Times bestseller, Oparh's Book Club Pick, NAACP Image Award Winner. Essence's 50 most impactful Black Books of the past 50 years. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Becoming Adapted for Young Readers by Michelle Obama (2021). Michelle Obama’s worldwide bestselling memoir, Becoming, is now adapted for young readers. Most importantly, this volume for young people is an honest and fascinating account of Michelle Obama’s life led by example. She shares her views on how all young people can help themselves as well as help others, no matter their status in life. She asks readers to realize that no one is perfect, and that the process of becoming is what matters, as finding yourself is ever evolving. In telling her story with boldness, she asks young readers: Who are you, and what do you want to become? ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Intimations: Six Essays by Zadie Smith (2020). Written during the early months of lockdown, Intimations explores ideas and questions prompted by an unprecedented situation. What does it mean to submit to a new reality--or to resist it? How do we compare relative sufferings? What is the relationship between time and work? In our isolation, what do other people mean to us? How do we think about them? What is the ratio of contempt to compassion in a crisis? When an unfamiliar world arrives, what does it reveal about the world that came before it? ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Writers & Lovers by Lily King (2019). Curtis Sittenfeld states, "I loved this book not just from the first chapter or the first page but from the first paragraph... The voice is just so honest and riveting and insightful about creativity and life". Writers & Lovers follows Casey--a smart and achingly vulnerable protagonist--in the last days of a long youth, a time when every element of her life comes to a crisis. Written with King's trademark humor, heart, and intelligence, Writers & Lovers is a transfixing novel that explores the terrifying and exhilarating leap between the end of one phase of life and the beginning of another. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza, & Penny
Sea Wolf by Amity Gaige (2021). Mary Laura Philpott, Parnassus Books, Nashville, TN says about Sea Wolf “Wherever you go, your anxieties go with you — even (or especially) if you go live on a boat to sail the world with your spouse and small children. Nothing will ever be the same for Juliet, Michael, and their family after their harrowing year at sea, and no reader will be the same after reading this taut, brilliant novel. I can’t stop thinking about it.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
How Much of These Hills is Gold by C Pam Zhang (2020). The Star Tribune reviewed this novel as “revolutionary . . . A visionary addition to American literature.” Both epic and intimate, blending Chinese symbolism and reimagined history with fiercely original language and storytelling, How Much of These Hills is Gold is a haunting adventure story, an unforgettable sibling story, and the announcement of a stunning new voice in literature. On a broad level, it explores race in an expanding country and the question of where immigrants are allowed to belong. But page by page, it’s about the memories that bind and divide families, and the yearning for home. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
The Great Offshore Grounds by Vanessa Veselka (2020). Longlisted for the 2020 National Book Award. A wildly original, cross-country novel that subverts a long tradition of family narratives and casts new light on the mythologies—national, individual, and collective—that drive and define us. Moving from Seattle's underground to the docks of the Far North, from the hideaways of the southern swamps to the storied reaches of the Great Offshore Grounds, this novel is a tale with boundless verve, linguistic vitality, and undeniable tenderness. ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
Long Bright River by Liz Moore (2020). Hilary Kotecki, The Doylestown & Lahaska Bookshops, Doylestown, PA says, "this story’s power comes not just from its beautiful writing but the reality of its characters and the incisive nature of its setting. Liz Moore has created a masterpiece that exposes the opioid epidemic in Philadelphia, highlighting the vulnerability of its victims and the sheer scope of suffering it causes. From the first page, when the murder mystery begins, readers will suffer and rejoice with the novel’s oh-so-human characters. The power of this story is a fire that will linger for a long time.” ~ Selected by Carin, Liza & Penny
Woodstock, VT + A Public Library + Book Clubs + A Book Store Owner + An English Teacher + The Book Jam = FUN and a great list of books to read
On an early April evening last week, the Norman Williams Public Library of Woodstock, Vermont (NWPL) hosted a night for Book Clubs heading into the spring and summer reading season. As with many events this past year, it was held over ZOOM. And though many of us dearly miss in-person events, the upside was that the Zoom platform magically allowed people from as far away as South Carolina to present and for readers from locales as far away as Chicago to attend (even though they couldn't quite hear the vernal chorus of wood frogs and peepers outside). The presenters included Kari Meutsch (owner of Yankee Bookshop), Liana Kish (a high school English teacher), and Lisa Christie (of our very own Book Jam blog). We were ably hosted by Kathy Beaird and Meg Brazill of the NWPL. (Bios appear at the end of the reviews.) What everyone - presenters and readers, both near and far - received was a fun evening of chatter about great books in addition to a rich list of what to read next with their book clubs. We share them now so that all may all benefit from the absolute fabulousness that is public library programming. We do so LOVE and appreciate local libraries and their dedicated librarians - as well as the concert of frogs currently singing us to sleep as we read.
BONUS -- If you order these books by April 31st from Yankee Bookshop, you will receive 15% off your order. Just click here.
Animal Wife by Lara Erlich (2020). Ms. Erlich’s debut collection pulls from the fairy tales we all know, but twists them on their head and investigates what might be the real life feelings of the women in these stories. Feminist reimaginings of fairy tales are not new, but these are different. This collection is definitely more realistic than most that play with this idea (I would place some of these stories in the real world, and some in magical realism). After each story I found myself wanting to turn to someone and discuss. I underlined passages, reread sections aloud that just felt so true - this writing was fantastic and I absolutely loved every story. ~ Selected by Kari
Severance by Ling Ma (2019). A debut novel, this pandemic story was written years before COVID19. What I loved about this book was the hope in such a bleak landscape. Having read a large number of post-apocalyptic novels, the reality that Ling Ma builds was just so believable and fresh. I’m not sure how it would read now that we have actually experienced (and still are in) a pandemic situation, but seeing New York City and the publishing industry through the eyes of a millennial just starting out was enough of a reason for me to want to read this book. Added bonus: readers are treated to an insider’s view of what the printing portion of publishing looks like in China. ~ Selected by Kari
A Children's Bible by Lydia Millet (2021). Absolutely hands-down the best book I read in 2020. Started it right at the beginning of lockdown, not realizing what it was actually about, and was absolutely spellbound from the beginning. It’s dark, but with hope at the end (for some, anyway). The premise is simple enough: a few families rent a summer house together - the reader follows the group of children thrown together by their parents, teen angst & drama etc. Then a storm comes - but not just any storm, it’s the Big One that changes everything. The kids are forced to band together to survive. There is so much to talk about here, especially after living through quarantine and the upheaval of the pandemic this last year - but also religion and belief, human nature, survival, generational differences. It’s simply written (almost like a fable) but amazingly profound - if sometimes difficult to swallow. ~ Selected by Kari
Sharks in the Time of Saviors by Kawai Strong Washburn (2020). This is a family story - with a twist - of life as a native Hawaiian. The family we follow is down on their luck and about to move to the main island of Hawaii in search of better employment, etc. Before they make the move, an incident happens - a miracle even - to their middle child. What follows is a story told from multiple points of view about growing up, what it means to be part of a family, what it’s like to be Hawaiian - on the islands and the mainland, and also what it’s like to grow up surrounded by a deep mythology - and maybe even be a part of it. Beautifully written, this book draws you in and won’t let you go. ~ Selected by Kari
The Friend by Sigrid Nunez (2019). In an interview in the Paris Review Nicholson Baker stated that all novels are trying to answer the question: Is life worth living? Nunez said she read the interview after she had finished writing The Friend and thought Baker’s statement was so perfect and true that she included it in the opening pages. The Friend is told by by an unnamed narrator who has just learned that her mentor has died by suicide. She is both a writer and a writing instructor and her therapist suggests that writing about her grief might help. And so the novel becomes her answer to this assignment of sorts. As a dog lover, I loved watching the growing relationship between the narrator and Apollo--the 180lb Great Dane she inherits from her mentor. As an English teacher, I loved the way Nunez weaves in quotations and anecdotes from the works and lives of other writers. She moves smoothly between heartbreaking and comical scenes with Apollo and philosophical musings about life and the act of writing. While this is a story about grief, it’s also one about love, friendship and writing. And of course, how does one make one’s life worth living? ~ Selected by Liana
Afterlife by Julia Alvarez (2020). This novella is set in 2019, in a small Vermont town. In the opening chapter we learn that Antonia Vega, a writing professor in Vermont, is on her way to meet her husband Sam at a restaurant. Their special dinner is to celebrate her retirement from the college. However, he dies from a heart attack en route to the restaurant. So just as she is about to embark on this new stage in life that she has imagined with him, she is alone. The title refers to both her need to reimagine
her life after his death as well as her need to keep his memory alive. While this book is about her grief, it is also about her complicated relationship with her sisters and the gifts and obligations of family. It touches upon timely topics such as immigration and raises the question: What is our responsibility to others?
After reading and listening to many interviews with Alvarez, I came across the following which I think gives a great sense of the feeling of this story: In an interview with the LA Times: “Many of my novels have a soundtrack that no one
else ever hears,” says Alvarez. “In this case, it was Leonard Cohen’s song [Anthem]
with the line ‘There is a crack in everything / That’s how the light gets in.’ … In that
brokenness and fragmentation that happens when the life you had falls apart, you hope that you end up with a larger version of yourself.”~ Selected by Liana
Infinite Country by Patricia Engel (2021) and Unaccompanied by Javier Zamora (2017), with Vida (2010) by Ms. Engel as a bonus if you need three choices. Immigration, undocumented workers, borders, border crossings, coyotes, border walls, xenophobia, citizenship, voting, all bring up emotions and images. Emotions and images that differ for everyone depending on our own lived experiences, and our exposure to people behind those words. For instance, anyone who has witnessed or participated in a naturalization ceremony is forever marked by the joy expressed there. Anyone who has known or is an undocumented worker is forever marked by the hope and fear guiding that status. The rest of us, well, we have books. And I am recommending two, OK three.
The first, Unaccompanied, is a collection of poetry authored by Javier Zamora, born in El Salvador and educated in the USA that describes in well chosen words the lives of the undocumented in the USA. The second, Infinite Country is the best book I have read this year. Infinite Country highlights what life torn between two countries involves. She shows how the decision to become "undocumented" is often not made in one fell swoop, but among thousands of small decisions over time. The novel stunningly shows how all five family members in this book are affected by immigration, deportation, and varying legal statuses in the USA. Along the way, she movingly portrays the beauty of Colombia and the hope of life in the USA. Vida, Ms. Engel's debut provides a superb collection of linked short stories if neither of the other two picks speak to you. ~ Selected by Lisa
When We Were Vikings by Andrew David MacDonald (2020). I LOVED THIS novel and no one really talks about it; so I am talking about it now. I read an advance copy in 2019 and was so excited to hand sell it to everyone when it was available for sale at the end of January 2020. Then covid happened and I was unable to convince as many people as I wished that this book should be read. So please read it.
For those who need a few more details --- a summary. This book lovingly, and with great prose and plot, reminds us that we are all legends of our own making. The heroine, Zelda, has some significant health difficulties; she knows they stem from fetal alcohol syndrome (even if she isn't exactly certain what that means). She also has a fierce determination to live her life boldly and her obsession with Vikings (the historical ones, not the football team) helps her in this quest. The plot begins with her 21st birthday party and slowly unfolds to show how she and her brother Gert navigate the honestly crappy hand life has dealt them - dead mother, absent father, abusive uncle, and poverty - just to name a few. When Gert, who is trying to both take care of the two of them and keep his college scholarship, makes some pretty poor choices, Zelda rises to the occasion with help from a superb librarian (love a book with a helpful librarian), a great social worker, and Gert's strong-minded on-again/off-again girlfriend - AK47. You will cheer for Zelda every step of the way and be a bit sad when you leave her orbit at the end. ~ Selected by Lisa
Hamnet by Maggie O'farrell (2020) paired with Hamlet by Shakespeare because why not? I’m cheating and pairing books again; but honestly in this case how could I not. In what was one of my very favorite books from 2020, Maggie O'farrell brings to life that elusive woman from Elizabethan England - no, not Queen Elizabeth - Shakespeare’s wife. Based around the fact of their son’s death from the plague (a great entry to discussions around covid 19 if your book club is ready for those), this novel explores what life might have involved for the partner of Shakespeare’s genius. Kathy Beaird reminded me during the Book Club event that William Shakespeare is never referred to by name in this novel; he is the poet or the playwright, or the husband. Debating the significance of Ms. O'farrell's choice to keep him unnamed might be a great way to begin your book club discussion of this novel. And honestly, reading this will make you want to revisit Hamlet so you might as well read them both and discuss. Bonus Hamnet is out in Paperback in May. ~ Selected by Lisa
Writers & Lovers by Lily King (2019). Having gone to college in the Boston area during the 80s, it was fun to read this novel set in Boston in 1997 with its references to familiar locations, music and events . Casey Peabody, the narrator of this story, is an aspiring writer in her early 30s, who is also a waitress in Harvard Square. She is smart and witty, and she is also grieving for her mother who passed away the year before. Both her mother’s death and a recently failed relationship have left her untethered and filled with self doubt. She is estranged from her father who does not support her choice to be a writer. King draws you into Casey’s life as she struggles between her desire to follow her passion to be a writer while also struggling to pay her rent. Casey’s story will give groups a lot to talk about in terms of the challenges of pursuing a creative life in a world that is hard on artists... How does one define success in terms of a career? And in terms of love? And what constitutes a family? ~ Selected by Liana
The Dutch House by Anne Patchett (2019). This story spans five decades and moves back and forth in time as the narrator, Danny Conroy tells us about his family. Danny’s father, Cyril Conroy, a poor Irish immigrant living in Brooklyn, creates a real estate empire for himself buying properties all over Philadelphia--his biggest source of pride is the Dutch House--a lavish and ornate home that he buys as a surprise for his family.
While Danny and his older sister Maeve adjust easily to their new lifestyle, their mother does not. The house becomes the very thing that unravels the family; and when Danny and Maeve find themselves banned from the home, they must learn to construct new homes and families for themselves. This is a story that explores tough questions such as, How do we make peace with difficult events from our childhoods? How do past events shape who we become as adults? What are we willing to forgive? ~ Selected by Liana
Think Again by Adam Grant (2021). For book clubs who like books with facts and data and thought provoking arguments and theories. Professor Grant's (Wharton) latest book illustrates we don't have to (and probably shouldn’t) believe everything we think, or internalize everything we feel. He shows how the ability to rethink and unlearn is essential to our success and more importantly our happiness. He challenges us to embrace the discomfort of doubt, to stop listening only to opinions that make us feel good, and to instead seek many, many ideas that make us think hard. He proves knowing what we don't know is true wisdom. Along the way he shares enough stories to stimulate great conversations - such as how do you make a Yankee fan a Red Sox fan too? Even if your club prefers fiction, this book would make a great change of pace. ~ Selected by Lisa
Uncomfortable Conversations With A Black Man by Emmanuel Acho (2020), You'll Never Believe What Happened to Lacey by Amber Ruffin (2021), and Black is the Body by Emily Bernard (2019). So many of us are struggling with how to talk about race and perhaps more importantly how to take action around racism and/or to be anti-racist. These four books all provide great ways for starting or continuing conversations about racism and bias. Each enters those conversations differently so I wanted to give Book Clubs that are interested in discussing racism options so you may choose depending on the flavor of your group dynamics or what you feel like devouring in that particular moment.
Broken (in the best possible way) by Jenny Lawson (2021). Jenny Lawson is hilarious. If you haven’t read any of her previous books, that’s okay. This book is filled with essays, some more personal than others, but over the course of the book she delves into her experiences with depression and anxiety (what it’s like to live with, cures she has tried, etc.) - all while making you laugh so much that it can be embarrassing. ~ Selected by Kari
Best We Could Do: An illustrated memoir written and illustrated by Thi Bui (2018). This book is Ms. Bui's look at becoming a mother in the US, when her own parents had navigated an escape from Vietnam (she was only months old at the time). A look at how she wants to be connected to her own children, while investigating the divide that exists between herself and her own parents, and diving into what they went through when escaping with the waves of “boat people” coming after the Vietnam War. There is SO MUCH to talk about with this one - especially when you incorporate the art aspect. If you’re looking to try a new format as a group, this graphic novel is beautiful and easy to follow - unlike more complicated examples of the genre can be. ~ Selected by Kari
Untamed by Glennon Doyle (2020). My daughter who is a sophomore in college recommended this book to me. To be honest, it’s not a book I would have chosen on my own but I was curious because she doesn’t usually recommend books. It’s SO good, she said. I had never even heard of Glennon Doyle, the #1 New York Times bestselling author, or the activist , speaker, thought leader... and so had no idea what to expect. Right away Ms. Doyle pulls you in to her family and situation. She gives you a front seat view as she discovers the many layers of how she has been tamed by societal expectations. Doyle’s previous books are honest about her battles with bulimia, alcoholism, and about her path out of these addictions and her successful marriage and three children. At a writing conference for her book, Love Warrior, her whole life changes when she meets someone who helps her become the person she believes she always was meant to be. Ms. Doyle offers words of wisdom about a range of topics and just when you might find her to be too preachy, she takes you on a humble road detour where she exposes her own shortcomings sometimes heartbreaking, sometimes laugh out loud funny. I found myself pushed and pulled all the way through to the end. It will certainly give a book group a lot to talk about. ~ Selected by Liana
All You Can Ever Know by Nicole Chung (2019). This memoir by Nicole Chung is about the power of stories. The first type of story Chung explores are the stories we are told when we are young and how they shape our perceptions of ourselves--even when we might not always believe these stories. Ms. Chung grew up in a small white town in Oregon and her white parents have always been open with her about her adoption. They explained to her that her Korean parents could not provide her with a good life, and so out of love they put her up for adoption. This story of her birth parents’ sacrifice out of love, brings her comfort when over the years she wonders how they could have given her up. As an adult and expectant mother, Ms. Chung actively begins her search for her birth parents. Ms. Chung lets us into her experience and takes on her journey as she learns that not all the stories she was told about her childhood are accurate. She gives an unflinching, honest portrayal of what she uncovers and as the title suggests, the limitations of what she simply cannot uncover or ever know. While some of her discoveries are painful, there are others that enrich her life. Ms. Chung also provides insight into some of the issues surrounding adoptions and challenges some of the mainstream ideas or narratives about adoptions. Her story touches upon what it means to belong and the many definitions of family and the many ways one can create a family. ~ Selected by Liana
GENRE: SCIFI, FANTASY, MYSTERY
The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue by V.E. Schwab (2020). If you could live forever, would you want to? What would you be willing to give up for immortality? This is the story of Adeline LaRue who as a young girl in a small town in France in the 18th century is about to be married to a man she does not love. In fact she does not want to marry or have children at all --even though that is what is expected of her. She runs from her wedding and begs the gods to help her. When one answers she makes a deal, asking for freedom and independence. While her wish is granted, she learns the cost too late. The story spans 300 years and moves to locations all over Europe and a few cities in the United States. While some readers may be disappointed that Addie doesn’t visit more places or tackle societal issues, her experience draws you in and makes you wonder how you might spend your days if they were endless? Her plight raises the questions such as, What does it take to live a life of purpose or a life of value? Do you need to leave a mark on the world? And if you don’t, does that mean your life has no value? How would you imbue them with purpose? What mark do you want to leave on the world? How do you want others to remember you? ~ Selected by Liana
Radiance by Catherynne Valente (2016). I love Catherynne Valente. Every one of her books is drastically different - in subject, in tone, in style, and even sometimes format. This book is a challenge, but so much fun along the way. It’s the 1940s, and centered around the film industry, set in an alternate version of our world (all the planets are inhabited, and Hollywood is located on the Moon). The main character is a documentary filmmaker, railing against the kind of movies that her famous father made (glossy romances & blockbuster films). She disappears while making what ends up being her final film, and the whole book is fitting the pieces together - radio transcripts, letters, screenplays, interviews (and some more narrative sections). It technically falls into a lot of science fiction sub-genres...but is also just a story about family, love, exploration and a love letter to the golden age of cinema - IN SPACE. ~ Selected by Kari
The Mountains Wild (2020) and A Distant Grave (2021) by Sarah Stewart Taylor. I recommend these two books for book clubs for five big reasons. 1) They are superbly crafted mysteries. 2) They will leave you longing to visit Ireland. 3) Ms. Taylor is a local author and I love to promote local authors; and in this case I LOVE that I can tell you to read local because these books are just REALLY good, not just because she is from Vermont. 4) The main characters - Long Island homicide detective Maggie D’Arcy and her detecting partner Dave, her daughter Lilly, her Uncle Danny, and her Irish beau Connor, are all worth investing time in getting to know. 5) Finally, Sarah will come visit ANY Book Club that buys seven or more of her books from Yankee Bookshop. So, with this selection, you can read great books and discuss them with the actual author. Hopefully, you don’t need any more reasons to pick up this series with your book club. And, I am sure I can find some. ~ Selected by Lisa
Night Diary by Veera Hiranandan (2019). A different kind of historical novel, from a very different perspective. This book looks at The Partition of India (1947), the creation of India and Pakistan, through the eyes of a 10 year old girl. Her story: she and her father need to leave their home, because they are in the land about to be Pakistan and their beliefs align more with the people of India. Because of the point of view, this book is absolutely heart-wrenching and eye-opening, all while managing to be completely appropriate for a 10 year old to read. What I love about reading books written for kids as an adult is the emotion - it’s so intense and to the point, because kids don’t have the baggage we all do everything is very straight-forward when you’re reading from their perspective. ~ Selected by Kari
The Poet X by Elizabeth Acevedo (2019). Written as a novel in verse, a teenage girl from the Bronx, Xiomara is struggling with the kinds of things all teenagers deal with: her body has changed without her permission, of course there’s a love interest, and then a mother with a fierce religious streak that clashes with her own view of things. Luckily, she finds poetry (particularly slam poetry) to be a way for her to find her voice and gain a better understanding of the world around her. Have you been inspired by Amanda Gorman? This is what she does that is so entrancing to watch - and Acevedo’s writing is the same kind of work that pulls you in and holds you close. ~ Selected by Kari
Fat Chance Charlie Vega by Crystal Maldonado (2021). A lovely coming of age story for all the readers out there who feel outside the norm due to body size (or other reasons) and for all their friends who love them. Charlie is a self described fat, brown girl whose dad passed away not so long ago, whose best friend is gorgeous, thin, and beloved by all, whose mother was fat like her until she discovered weight loss shakes - shakes that she insists on sharing with an uncooperative Charlie. Complicating matters even further, Charlie is in love with the star football player, Cal, who has firmly planted her in friend land; and probably only in friend land in order to gain an in with Charlie's gorgeous best friend. Charlie recognizes this cliche of the fat friend in love with the star athlete who uses her for her class notes and access to beautiful friends. And she absolutely knows things with Cal will be different when he finally sees her. Luckily, Charlie has her notebook, her stories, and her desire to be the best writer possible. Even more luckily, Charlie has an after school job in a workspace shared by a very nice boy from her art class. Enjoy this ride through he junior year of high school and enjoy Charlie and her true friends; they will give you hope for humanity. ~ Selected by Lisa
Stand Up, Yumi Chung by Jessica Kim (2020). One small lie, Ok not so small, but unintentional, spirals into an adventure about the importance of family, how new friends can change your world, and finding one's true self. In this book, Yumi Chung's dreams of being a stand up comic are not understood by her parents - two hardworking US immigrants from Korea who are fighting to keep their restaurant alive and provide a better life for their two daughters. Yumi's parents send her to SAT boot camp so she can earn a scholarship and somehow she stumbles into a summer camp for comics. The novel then explores can she do both? Which side of her life wins - comic or respectful daughter? Can her parents save their restaurant? This novel is funny, heartfelt, and sad all at once. An especially great book for preteens who are trying to express their true selves without being disrespectful or ungrateful, or anyone looking for a relatable heroine. ~ Selected by Lisa
BONUS -- If you order these books by April 31st from Yankee Bookshop, you will receive 15% off your order. Just click here. So if your Book Club is debating, debate a bit faster and get a lovely and generous discount.
Liana Kish is an English teacher and loves talking about books. She has been on leave this past year and has enjoyed having extra time for gardening, baking and cross-country skiing. She is excited to participate in this event and share some titles she enjoyed during the past few months.
Kari Meutsch has over 16 years of experience helping people find just the right book. After bookselling across the country, she and her husband settled here in Woodstock in early 2017 to take over the town’s historic bookstore, the Yankee Bookshop, which has been running since 1935. Over the years, Kari has curated quite the list of favorite books and authors to share with any reader, but above all she deeply believes that stories shared and received are the seeds for empathy and change. While her current reading obsessions are just about anything to do with fairy tales or angsty teenage witches, she also loves a good nonfiction audiobook or podcast when she needs to be doing something with her hands, like a jigsaw puzzle or knitting project.
Lisa Christie, co-founder of the Book Jam, was in previous times the Founder/Executive Director of Everybody Wins! Vermont and USA, literacy programs that help children love books. She currently works as a part-time non-profit consultant, School Board member, and all-the-time believer in the power of books. She lives in Norwich with her musician husband, two superb teenage sons, and a very large dog. She often dreams of travel, especially after this year of pandemic precautions, and is grateful to have Vermont to call home.