Titles that will foster discussion
Book clubs provide an engaging way for individuals who love to read to meet and discuss books. Picking your next read can be the hardest part of having a book club. Striking a balance between a compelling read and one that engenders plenty of discussion is trickier than it should be.
I have participated in numerous book clubs over the years, and each club has chosen their reads in a different manner. One club selected monthly with a complicated process comprised of several rounds of voting, another chose the books for the year in January by committee, and for a third, we just casually chatted about books until we eventually decided on the next month’s read. Sometimes, book clubs will pair menu items with the book selected or decorate according to the theme of the book selected for that month to make the meetings more festive.
I have gathered some titles that have enough depth to foster discussion and that will have members thinking about the books long after the group finishes reading them.
Acts of Violet by Margarita Montimore (fiction) – This engrossing tale focuses on magician Violet Volk who vanished mid-act a decade previously. As the 10-year anniversary of her disappearance approaches, the host of a podcast devoted to Violet seeks to finally interview Sasha, Violet’s sister, about what happened. The book’s creative use of podcast transcripts, emails, newspaper articles and more propels the story along, and there is much to discuss with this thought-provoking and inventive story.
The Address Book: What Street Addresses Reveal about Identity, Race, Wealth, and Power by Deirdre Mask (nonfiction) – When Mask stumbled upon a research paper called “Addressing the World, An Address for Everyone” and learned that many households in the world do not have street addresses, she started investigating. Her research led her to write this fabulous and fascinating history of how streets are named, who counts and who doesn’t, and what happens today when someone does not have an address. Readers will learn a lot and have tons to deliberate.
The Cartographers by Peng Shepherd (literary mystery) – When Nell Young’s estranged father, a renowned cartographer, is found dead in the New York Public Library where he works, she discovers that he was clutching the very same basic gas station map that caused their falling-out years before. Curious about the importance of the map and its potential link to her father’s death, Nell conducts research and discovers that the map is exceedingly rare, in fact it is the only one left of its kind. Baffled by this bizarre discovery, Nell sets out to uncover the secrets behind the map. This unique and creative tale is a page turner with an intelligent and engaging plot.
Cover Story by Susan Rigetti (thriller) – NYU student Lora Ricci’s internship at ELLE Magazine introduces her to the cutthroat world of fashion and the wealthy people who populate the industry. When Cat Wolff, a contributing editor to the magazine and daughter of a wealthy mogul, takes Lora on as a mentee, Lora is initially thrilled. She agrees to become Cat’s ghostwriter and drops out of school to focus full time on writing. As the two begin working on the book, Lora soon realizes that all is not as it seems; Cat comes and goes at all hours, and bills seem to go unpaid. The book and its format (emails, FBI reports, diary entries, and more) are fabulous, and it is a wild and crazy ride that will leave everyone wanting to debate the tale.
Dust Child by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai (historical fiction) – In this stunning tale set in 1969, two sisters Trang and Quỳnh leave their village in an effort to help their parents pay off debts and travel to Sài Gòn to become “bar girls.” Against her better judgment, Trang gets involved with Dan, an American helicopter pilot. Many years later, Dan, with his wife Linda, decides to return to Vietnam in an effort to make peace with his past. Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai has an amazing ability to portray the legacy of war from a very human standpoint – she compels readers to understand the long-lasting effects of conflict on both the land and the thousands upon thousands of people impacted by war.
House of Sticks by Ly Tran (memoir) – Ly tells the story of how her family moved to the United States as part of a relocation program from Vietnam when she was three. Speaking no English, they are placed in an apartment in Queens and required to find their own work. Ly’s father spent 10 years in a Vietnamese prisoner of war camp and is saddled with severe PTSD. While navigating the immigrant experience, her family is also coping with his anger and irrational choices. For several years they perform sweatshop work as the kids go to school during the day and work a lot of the night. Ly tells her family’s story with grace, and she provides interesting insight into what the immigrant experience is like for one family.
Land of Big Numbers by Te-Ping Chen (short stories) – Land of Big Numbers is a collection of short stories set in modern-day China depicting its history, politics, culture, and people. The stories combine razor-sharp commentary on life in a country governed by a Communist regime combined with elements of satirical magical realism, and the effect is almost always superb and at times surreal. Te-Ping’s inspiration for the stories comes from her years spent as a Wall Street Journal correspondent living in Beijing, and these riveting stories will inspire great conversations.
Last Summer on State Street by Toya Wolfe (fiction) – This coming-of-age story stars a 12-year-old girl named Fe Fe Stevens who lives in the Robert Taylor Homes on the south side of Chicago in 1999, right as the buildings are slowly being torn down by the Chicago Housing Authority. Her building is next in line to come down, and for a brief time she forms an alliance with two other girls in her building – one the daughter of deeply religious parents and the other a member of the family who runs the gang that “protects” her building. The author herself lived in the Robert Taylor Homes, and the story is engaging and heartbreaking. Wolfe vividly depicts what it was like to live there: the daily gun battles, the dangers involved in taking the elevator or the stairs, the lack of lighting provided, and more.
A Shoe Story by Jane L. Rosen (contemporary fiction) – Following college, Esme put her dreams of moving to New York City and pursuing a career at an art gallery on hold to care for her father when he had a car crash. Seven years later, she is offered a month-long job dog sitting in a Greenwich Village apartment where the owner has an amazing collection of designer shoes, which Esme asks to borrow. Every day, she tries a new pair as she works to make friends, regain her old life, and decide how much of her old dreams are still relevant to her now. The intergenerational relationships, the focus on friendship, and the shoes make this a standout tale with much to deliberate.
Silent Came the Monster by Amy Hearth Hill (historical fiction) – This book chronicles the real-life shark attacks that inspired the movie Jaws. Set against the backdrop of World War 1 and a polio epidemic, people are disinclined to believe that a shark could kill anyone. With the knowledge humans have today, it is intriguing to see how little people knew about sharks in the early part of the 20th-century and how humans' responses to things unknown/unseen then were eerily similar to how people still respond today.
The Spectacular by Fiona Davis (historical fiction) – Fiona Davis bases each of her books in an iconic New York City building, and The Spectacular is set at one of the city’s most well-known and beloved locales, Radio City Music Hall. Nineteen-year-old Marion is selected as a Rockette, performing at Radio City Music Hall, much to the chagrin of her parents and her boyfriend. Then one evening, a bomb explodes in the theater, and Marion’s personal connection draws her into the investigation. The behind-the-scenes glimpses into both Radio City Music Hall and the Rockettes are fascinating, and aspects of the story are more personal for Davis.
Take My Hand by Dolen Perkins-Valdez (historical fiction) – This sad but important book highlights what happens when those in charge think they know what is best and take matters into their own hands regarding forced sterilization. With the recent focus on reproductive rights in our country, this is a particularly relevant and compelling story that will provoke a healthy dialogue.
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