I’ve had the privilege of being in the same book club for the last eight years. A lot has changed in that time – people have moved away, new members have joined, babies have been born, weddings have been celebrated. But at the same time, much has stayed the same. We meet once a month at someone’s house to discuss a monthly read and, perhaps more importantly, to do life together. No matter how chaotic the schedule is or how little of the book I have read, monthly book club has a sacred spot in my calendar and is very rarely missed.
I can’t say enough about the benefits that come from having this unique and consistent community in my life. Plus, and no accident that I note this second, it keeps me reading. Not only am I reading a book every month, I’m exposed to different books and authors than I would be if I were reading on my own (we all help pick books and have very different styles and interests). In theory, we’ve read 88 books (8 years, 11 books a year – no selection for the month of December), some of which have been crowd pleasers, others universally disliked. Eight years and 88 books in, here’s our list of all-time favorites (as voted on by the book club):
1. All the Light We Cannot See
While the rest of this list is in no particular order, All the Light We Cannot See is our highest rated selection of all time. Written by American author Anthony Doerr, it won the 2015 Pulitzer Price for fiction and the 2015 Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction. Set in Paris during World War II, All the Light We Cannot See follows the lives of a young, blind French girl, Marie-Laure, and an orphaned German boy, who becomes an expert in short-wave radios. Their experience are vastly different, yet their lives come together in an unlikely yet beautiful way. While there are a plethora of books about World War II, this story is unlike any other that I’ve read. The characters and story make it hard to put down, but the vivid descriptions and attention to the most minute of details make the book a true masterpiece that you’ll want to read more than once.
2. Let the Great World Spin
Let the Great World Spin is a novel by Colum McCann and was the winner of the 2009 National Book Award for Fiction. Set in New York City in the 1970s, it’s centered around two main events: Philippe Petit’s 1974 tightrope walk between the twin towers, and the criminal trial (fictional) of a prostitute. The book features over a dozen different protagonists, and the chapters jump from character to character. The vastly different voices of each chapter at first feel a little haphazard, but are increasingly intriguing as you work to figure out how all the characters are connected. You’ll want to see how the story plays out, all while being slowed down as you take in the many layers of each character and chapter. Like All the Light We Cannot See, this needs to be read more than once!
3. Little Bee
Little Bee was the first book that we read as a book club, but still ranks at the top of the list for many of us (perhaps some nostalgia there, but a great read regardless). Written by British author Chris Cleave and published in 2008, Little Bee tells the story of Little Bee, a Nigerian Refugee, and Sarah, a magazine editor from Surrey. A couple of years after meeting in the Nigerian Delta, Little Bee and Sarah are reunited when Little Bee escapes illegally to England. The novel follows their story and Little Bee’s experience as an asylum-seeker in England. Obviously, the topics are heavy and it’s not a light read. Yet, it’s not overwhelmingly dark, and there are pieces of hope throughout. Cleave raises a number of thought-provoking issues about refugees, systems of asylum, morality, and personal responsibility that add value to the book beyond its engaging storytelling. Perhaps not the perfect beach read, but an excellent book club read that is ripe for discussion.
4. Dark Matter
Now for a very drastic pivot to Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. Dark Matter is a science-fiction thriller that requires some extreme mental gymnastics. (NOTE: if you’re like me and saw science fiction and immediately lost interest, don’t. I don’t like sci-fi. Ever. Yet somehow I loved this book – despite being initially very reluctant.) Dark Matter is centered around Jason Dressen, a quantum physicist living an unremarkable but happy life with his girlfriend and son in Chicago. When he goes out one night for ice cream, he is abducted and somehow finds himself in a new version of his life (stay with me). It seems he has figured out how to access an infinite number of universes, and the reader travels with him as he tries to get back to his world and his family. My mind exploded a number of times in this book, and the overly rational and linear part of me had to check out a bit (there are pieces that just don’t work). That said, one of the great benefits of a book club is reading different types and styles of books. This one was well out of my comfort zone, but such an intriguing and entertaining read. While I wouldn’t rank this at the top of my list, like some of the club did, I would definitely keep it on my must-reads and “get out of my box” list.
5. The Imperfectionists
The Imperfectionists, published in 2010, is Tom Rachman’s first novel. Rachman, a London-based journalist, had a stunning debut with this unconventional story of a English newspaper in Rome. The book is centered around the paper and its steady decline, as it follows the lives of the paper’s writers, editors, and executives. While all are working to keep the paper afloat, they each are dealing with their own, tumultuous personal lives. The Imperfectionists is first a funny, quirky, and insightful character study. However, amidst the myriad of characters, is an underlying story of a dying art and those affected by this loss. Rachman’s background as a journalist gives him the perfect lens to write this ode-like story to old-school journalism. While the story of the paper is charming, the real beauty of The Imperfectionists is the cast of characters that emerge from and become part of the paper’s history and life. If you like a good character study and/or long for the days of print journalism, you’ll connect with and enjoy The Imperfectionists.
6. We Were Liars
We love to throw some good YA (young adult) literature into our lineup. Not only does it make the month’s read a little quicker and easier, there are some great choices in this genre that should not be overlooked! We Were Liars is a young-adult novel by Emily Jenkins (pen name E. Lockhart) that follows the wealthy Sinclair family. The largely dysfunctional family comes together every summer on their private island (near Martha’s Vineyard). The story focuses on Summer Fifteen, when protagonist, Cadence Sinclair, was fifteen and spent most of the summer with her two cousins and a friend. Something happened to the four teenagers, known by the rest of the family as The Liars, that summer, but all Cadence can remember is a head injury, which caused her to lose all other memories of the summer. When Cadence returns to the island in Summer Seventeen, she and The Liars try to bring back the memories of Summer Fifteen. There are some GREAT twists and turns in this book, a few of which caught me completely by surprise. This is a quick read, but a YA book that is worth your time!
7. The Hunger Games
Speaking of YA, The Hunger Games made the list. Say what you will, but it was a fun group read. You probably know the storyline well by now – set in dystopian Panem, teenagers from twelve outlying districts are brought to the controlling and wealthy capitol to compete in the televised hunger games, where the teens fight to the death. If you’ve written it off as too teen-focused or too cliche or if you’ve only seen the movie, think about working it into the lineup. It’s a fun (despite the killing) and easy read. Think about putting it in your book club’s rotation during a busy month (and then follow up with a group movie night).
8. The History of Love
The History of Love, published in 2005, is American Nicole Krauss’s second novel. It’s sweet, sad, heart-wrenching, and complicated. The story begins with Leo, a young boy in Poland who falls deeply in love with Alma. Alma and Leo are torn apart when Germany invades Poland, and when they are reunited in America, Alma is married and has two children (one that is Leo’s and one that is her husbands). Leo’s life is lonely and sad, as he watches his son and true love from afar. However, when he connects with a young woman named Alma, both he and Alma find some peace and meaning in their difficult and pain-stricken seasons of life. This story is a complicated one, but it’s worth working through the many layers and characters. Part heart-breaking, part hope-filled, you’ll hit all the emotions as you experience this book and its seventy years of love, heartbreak, and joy.
There you have it, our favorites after eight years of reading. If you’re not in a book club, think about joining one ASAP. If you are in a book club, we’d love it if you’d comment with your favorite reads so we can add them to our list. Happy reading!