I get asked for recommendations for book club selections on a fairly regular basis. Where I typically point people is my annual “wrap up” posts where I offer a good bit of information on the ten books my book club read over the last year: the overall rating, the high and low scores and often a little bit about the book itself. You can find my annual wrap-ups here for 2022, 2021, 2020, 2019, 2018, and 2017.
However, sometimes books with high ratings don’t always provide a great discussion and there may be books with slightly lower scores that make for great book club engagement. So, here’s a post of ten great books that also make for great book club discussions.
Stoner by John Williams: This is one of two of my all-time favorite books. (The other is East of Eden.) I like recommending it because there are a lot of readers out there who still haven’t heard of it. Coming in at under 300 pages, it is not that long, and there’s nothing complicated that makes it a difficult read. But, it is layered with language and characters and themes. So much to talk about.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan: WWII novels are a dime a dozen these days, and most of them are fine. This one is exceptional. It has what you’d expect from a WWII book about prisoners of war, but it also has great characters, some personal context of the author, and because it is set in the Pacific theater, lesser-known war milestones. It also contains one of my favorite quotes about books: “A good book… leaves you wanting to reread the book. A great book compels you to reread your own soul,” says Dorrigo Evans, the lead character.
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee: This is one of my favorite books that for some reason I’ve never reviewed. Set in Japan and spanning decades before and after WWII, the narrative begins as a young, poor Japanese girl who gets pregnant by a wealthy stranger. Class, race, power, gender – there is much to discuss that is relevant to today’s reader. This isn’t a perfect novel, in my opinion, but even the areas where it falls short provide excellent discussion.
Rules of Civility by Amor Towles: I actually would recommend any of his three novels as a book club selection, as all are great fodder for discussion. I call out Rules of Civility specifically because I think it is more “approachable” for most readers. For one, it is the shortest of the three. A Gentleman in Moscow is thick, rife with Russian politics, which don’t make for the most casual of conversations, and some may find it hard to get into. But it is incredibly rewarding for those who stick with it. His most recent, Lincoln Highway, also offers much to discuss (and my review has some discussion prompts if you’re interested).
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath: This is a great book for many reasons. I like looking to older books that are “new to me” or re-reading some I may have experienced in college now that I’ve lived a little. This is fiction that borders awfully close to memoir, so that’s an interesting angle to talk about. It is also curious to consider what equates to “women’s fiction” then and now.
A Ladder to the Sky by John Boyne: Evil women are common in literature. See Lady Macbeth and a host of others. Evil men, sure – they are there, but they are typically your normal villain. In A Ladder the Sky you’ll meet evil like none other and in an oh.so.discussable.context. The novel is divided into five parts, alternating persons, which makes an interesting literary study alone.
Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese: For me, this is a near-perfect novel. It has diverse settings, complex characters, rich themes, and exciting narrative. Siamese twin brothers, illicitly conceived, born in an Ethiopian mission and perhaps “with” a mission – their mother dies giving birth to them and their father runs off during the delivery. Coming in at just over 500 pages, it is on the longer side, but every page is worth it.
Recitatif by Toni Morrison: I haven’t yet discussed this book with my book club, but I plan to pitch this at our next book selection and hope to remedy that this upcoming year. Written in 1983, it is Morrison’s only short story. (Maybe more of a novella at 81 pages.) Twila and Roberta are two girls who meet at a shelter when they are eight years old, and the story tells of their interactions through the years. It sounds sorta boring until you understand that one is Black and the other white, only Morrison never reveals which is which.
Others to Consider
Here are a few others that make for a great discussion, depending on your book club’s preferences.
Non-fiction / Based on True Events
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich
In the Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex by Nathaniel Philbrick
Short Story Collections
If your club has never selected a short story collection, I highly recommend it. These are some of our liveliest discussions because there is so much to talk about.
Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage: Stories by Alice Munro
A Good Man Is Hard to Find and Other Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
Stone Mattress by Margaret Atwood
Perfume: The Story of a Murderer by Patrick Suskind
The Cement Garden by Ian McEwen
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