The Book Jam Blog
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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